New York

“Dark Rooms”

Artists Space Exhibitions

“Dark Rooms,” a group of installations by Stephen Barry, Luis Nicolau, Julia Scher, H. Shearer, Jana Sterbak, and Patricia Thornley, provided an occasion for reconsidering the range, potential, and lasting vitality of the art installation. While none of these pieces projected the frenetic urgency or eruptive energy of early installation art, all demonstrated a seriousness, sophistication, calculation, and self-consciousness about the production of ephemeral events. Several of the projects challenged the conventions and operations of the exhibition space, and most required a significant commitment from the viewer; psychological and physical passivity was not easily sustained.

Jana Sterbak’s installation, entitled Attitudes, was a double bed, covered by a crisp white sheet neatly tucked in place, on a modest platform. The head of the bed was a cascade of plump pillows, whose white linen pillowcases each bore a single embroidered word: “greed,” “reputation,” “virtue,” “disease.” This warm and welcoming realm of sleep and lovemaking was cunningly transformed into a site of anxious insomnia, raging paranoia, and dangerous encounters. The fear of both the politics of sex and the unconsciousness of sleep, so demurely suggested, evoked a sense of dread and thwarted desire.

Patricia Thornley’s untitled stark white tableau included an expanse of wall, a small fence, and a utility pole and wires set wildly askew. When the viewer pushed a button on an adjacent column, it activated slide and film projectors and an audio tape, creating a whirling cacophony of image and music. Texts that described radiation contamination and corporate chicanery in Fernald, Ohio, and the moving image of a woman spinning in place to the song “Take My Breath Away” signalled a sinister deception. Light and motion disappeared as suddenly as they began—like a bad dream. The fine line between wakeful innocence and dark suspicion was tangibly inscribed by both the physical and ephemeral evidence.

The marvelous and menacing apparatus of Stephen Barry’s Palladium consisted of a bowl-shaped armature, in whose center was a circular screen. Two lengths of steel perpendicular to the screen stretched beyond the structure; one appendage supported a film projector and the other a seat resting on wheels. When a viewer sat down, the piece began to rotate rapidly counterclockwise. On the screen, one saw a human fetus that pivoted as the apparatus turned 360 degrees. The work provided a slightly threatening context in which to reflect on common, natural origins. As with most of Barry’s installations, viewers were asked to sign a waiver obviating the artist from responsibility for any injuries that might occur, but the release offered no respite or exemption from the psychic jostling the piece caused.

The entrance to the gallery was radically transformed by Julia Scher’s Security by Julia II, which funnelled viewers into a narrow corridor. There was a bank of cameras to the right and a procession of monitors to the left projecting actual data (the Artists Space staff eating lunch in the back offices, for example) or invented narratives (a skulking figure with a handgun). Beneath the monitors was a metal desk with more monitors, behind which sat a female security guard tidily dressed in a bright pink uniform. She alternately gazed at the monitors, chatted with visitors, and read a paperback novel. Scher’s ongoing preoccupation with the devices of security has provided unusual and disturbing insights into the insidious effects of fear—of precautions taken to opportunistic and oppressive extremes.

Luis Nicolau’s installation, “The Treason of Judas,” comprised an embankment of video monitors that ploddingly depicted critical moments in Judas’ betrayal of Christ. The contrast between the biblical passages, the attenuated slow motion of the vividly rendered scenes, and the video inundation of hype brought mythic questions and the apparatus of indoctrination into a profoundly disruptive arrangement. H. Shearer’s untitled project provided the one opportunity for isolation in the exhibition—but the isolation provided little tranquility. In a spare, claustrophobic room, he set up folding chairs facing a small video monitor. Like a theatrical set or the site of an interrogation, the room was thick with the potential for some puzzling, discordant discourse between artist/inquisitor and audience/victim. In general, “Dark Rooms” threw the viewer into the glare of a duplicitous, difficult world.

Patricia C. Phillips