New York

Rachel Berwick

Nordanstad Gallery

Rachel Berwick’s recent exhibition “Sounding Measures” consisted of two interdependent installations fabricated from translucent blocks of copal, a premature form of amber. Large irregular chunks of unrefined copal with hollowed impressions of animal heads hidden within their core were placed on tables and wired with ultrasound devices that calibrated the shape of the negative space within the “amber” rocks with incomprehensible numerical measurements flashing from an LCD display on the wall. The second piece, The Amber Room, 1993, consisted of translucent panes of golden copal slabs covering the entryway in a very small corridor. These were also accompanied by a clock slowly marking the passage of the millennia it would take to transform the copal into real amber. “The Amber Room,” Berwick informed us, “refers directly to King Frederick of Prussia’s monumental gift to Peter the Great” that was later “pillaged by the Germans in World War II . . . its walls were covered by mosaics of the precious substance, ornamented with gold leaf.”

As if to compensate for what the piece clearly lacked visually, the wall text asked us to undertake “the grandiose ambition of imagining such a room,” and to fantasize about “its sheer physical beauty.” However, not only was this room the size of a tiny foyer, barely suggestive of its original grandiose predecessor, but one could not help but feel bewildered by the installation’s banal visual impact: its inability to tempt the viewer into contemplation, whether esthetic or intellectual. The unremittingly awkward objects in the main room and the use of technological apparati undermined the esthetic response desired of the spectator, even if, as is plausible from the overwrought artist’s statement, Berwick intended to mark both the “audacity” of such a project and to somehow evoke the idea of the loss or absence of “esthetic” experience.

Whether or not one read the text, Berwick’s installation was a panegyric that ultimately failed to inspire. It lacked the necessary element of irony, parody, or critique that would have endowed it with contemporary significance. Berwick used the authoritarian voice of technology to elaborate the severity with which we have distanced ourselves from the past. Unfortunately it remained unclear what sense of loss the viewer was meant to attach to such an esoteric fascination as that of King Frederick of Prussia. What Berwick seems to forget is that we’re at the gateway to the 21st century. When I’m asked to imagine the artistic potential of a material such as amber, or even its rock-candy substitute copal, it’s not Frederick, Peter the Great, or 18th-century palace decoration that come to mind, but the material that preserved the DNA from which dinosaurs were biogenetically engineered in the movie Jurassic Park, 1993. At least that invocation of amber enabled us to walk with cybertech dinosaurs along the boundaries of the crucial political and ethical issues raised by the shifting frontiers of biotechnology. While both scenarios may be fantasies, Berwick’s plays dress-up in 18th-century costuming while Steven Spielberg’s confronts issues directly related to our everyday lives. Berwick’s installation is like an imperfectly engineered time machine, one that leaves the passenger in a limbo that is neither the past, the present, nor the future.

Kirby Gookin