“Seven Obsessions”

When Chris Burden said of an early work that it “was about impotence really,” he might as easily have been talking about this show of works by seven artists. Though from the evidence of his own contribution—a steel and concrete number weighing in at eight tons—one might assume that he had personally got over this problem, impotence of one sort or another seems to lie, curled and cowed, at the core of these seven works. Though presented somewhat misleadingly as installations, none of the works in “Seven Obsessions,” with the exception of Mark Thompson’s Invocations, which occupies a room of its own, has any real hold, conceptually or otherwise, on the sleek interior of the Whitechapel Gallery. Installation proper is obsessive and possessive of the space it claims with authority or inhabits with impunity, and of its power to seduce or repel the spectator. What it is not is discreet and tolerant of any neighbor, like regular art. These works function as props, only they are bigger and more theatrical than usual.

The opening night had all that thrilling thespian panic and pleasure: the right people were there but the star of the show failed to appear. Chris Burden’s Medusa’s Head (a work in progress), 1989–, remained secreted in its crate, which had an obdurate, indeed obsessive presence that was lost in the hanging of the piece a day late. This ugly, barren meteorid of plywood, steel, concrete and stone traversed by seven types of EuroAmerican freight trains, is slung by chain from the lower gallery ceiling, which is cracking just slightly under the strain. Medusa is the gladiatorial twin to Burden’s Samson, 1985; both are attempts to empower art against culture—to enable us to face a future. The problem is that Medusa is just a very big brute of a sculpture; you worry less about the future than about the lives and limbs of those who have to pack it up again.

More demanding on the cerebral front is Melanie Counsell’s untitled work consisting of veils on nylon steel frames slung from floor to ceiling like deadly deep sea trawl nets. Caught up in the fine weave are little worms of axel grease whose virulent hold leaves its mark on the inner net, which hangs like a grim and ineffectual safety curtain. Though it is underscored by a text from Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, 1772, Counsell’s work refrains from overt didacticism; it leaves plenty of room for the spectator. It would, in fact, have been better served had it not been flanked by the serried ranks of Sophie Calle’s abrasive and declamatory images and texts. What Calle exposes with surgical cunning in a work entitled The Graves, 1990, is the depth and violence of human fear and desire, which Counsel leaves ambiguous and potent.

Once you have emerged from the sickly sweet waxy shrine of Thompson’s hive environment, where the bees don’t seem too busy in their bull skeleton, it takes a few deep breaths before one can come to terms with the brasher, machined world upstairs. The hottest work is Angela Bulloch’s Blue Horizons, 1990, a drawing machine sensitized by means of detectors to the presence and movement of the spectator. As time goes on, its relentless horizontal progress across the wall, interrupted by little violent cardiac shifts, creates a lavender blue image of surprising visual power, doing away with any need to mourn the loss of either author or subject. If Burden can describe himself as the “Robinson Crusoe of High Tech,” Bulloch is a resourceful Girl Friday, outsmarting and subverting the ambition and the pessimism of the Masters.

Marjorie Allthorpe Guyton