New York

Andrea Zittel

Andrea Rosen Gallery

While the old school of formalist sculpture has all but expired for lack of blood, “real-time systems” art has come galloping over the horizon. With a tip of the hat to Jack Burnham and Hans Haacke, recent generations of artists have widened the “systemic” sphere to include forms of narrative grounded not only in a range of social sciences, but in social fictions as well—precisely what gives this version of ’60s redux new relevancy. At the intersection of science and fiction, we have long exercised our cultural option to imaginatively invent a plethora of contemporary futures as a means of mirroring the complex present. But here’s the catch; when we talk about “real-time systems,” whether political, biological, environmental, or historical, there’s more than a little confusion about how we conceive of the “real” and how we want it pictured. Federico Fellini, who characterized reality as a circus, should be our guide in this matter. “I’d like very much to make a confident picture,” he once told an interviewer, adding that he sought to liberate viewers from “overidealized concepts of life.” “I make pictures to tell a story, to tell lies and to amuse.”

One might say that Andrea Zittel gives us confident pictures too, but instead of Fellini’s sensual embrace of human foibles, her touch is robotic—intolerant of vulnerability, weakness, and indecision. In her “Purity” exhibition, highly functional structures designed for no-nonsense domestic interiors extend the Modernist utopian fantasy of perfect machines for living into the freakish, antiseptic dimension of maximum efficiency and regulation. While her “prototypes to cleanse, feed, and comfort the human body” lay claim to a reductive functionality, they also echo the principles of B. F. Skinner.

Zittel designates her New Age, positive-reinforcement prototypes as an antidote to cultural, psychological, and spiritual malaise, but the theory of progressive social evolution upon which they are based is inhibited by a sense of defensiveness, deprivation, and pathological fear of loss of control. Her standard “A to Z” products are forever solving problems, but compulsively so, and are reformist to a fault. The Prototype Dishes Dining Table (all works 1993), the Prototype Designated Dining Table, and the A to Z Food Group are streamlined to eliminate the “problems” of where to eat, how to eat, and even what to eat. In this prefabricated household, order and cleanliness are strictly enforced. One eats only at the table, depending upon its model, either directly from its surface or from conical bowls wedged into place, in conformity with prescribed seating arrangements, settings, and limited menu options. Prototype Cleansing Chamber condenses all cleaning needs to one-step, unitary operational efficiency. The same economy informs Cover, modular sets of multifunctional comforters that can serve as coats, blankets, carpets, curtains, or stacked, as bedding and seating.

Zittel’s instruments of domestic technology, like Skinner’s box, are dedicated to conditioning and reinforcement rather than to understanding behavior. However, before we run from the menacing hum of uniformity, screaming for the pulsing chaos of street life, we have to ask one question: does Zittel collage materialism, positivism, and behaviorism in order to critique arch Modernism and its offshoots (we keep looking for the self-referential irony), or does she actually believe in and promote its most obvious defects? Either way, the “real-time systems” work she delivers is social science fiction: the difference between critique and promotion being that while the former tells amusing lies about “overidealized concepts of life,” the latter is blind to its own deception, and hence it not only lies to us, but to itself as well.

Jan Avgikos