New York

Paul Ramirez Jonas

Under the title “Heavier than Air,” Paul Ramirez Jonas presented two installations dealing with the history of flight and invention. For the earlier (though ongoing) work, Men on the Moon: Tranquility, 1992, the artist reconstructed Thomas Alva Edison’s first phonograph, 1879, using it to record, onto 398 green wax cylinders (each containing about a minute of sound), the initial six and one-half hours of the first manned mission to the moon in 1969. (He intends to record the remaining 17 hours of the mission by this method as well.) The cylinders were displayed on shelves along one wall, with the phonograph and a hook containing a transcript of the transmission more marginally placed.

The more recent work consisted of seven kites made of white cotton and wood, all 1993, that replicated designs from the last century, including two by Alexander Graham Bell. Each was equipped with a camera and a homemade triggering mechanism using an alarm clock as its basic element, and each was displayed with a color photograph taken from the kite as it was being flown over a beach.

Such a historically self-conscious approach has its problems as well as opportunities. Men on the Moon represents more of the former. Indebted to Edison’s invention and the Apollo Moon Mission in its choice of materials, it is equally indebted to the art of the ’60s and ’70s in its form: to Walter de Maria and his ideas about “useless work”; to the fascination with the notion of the archive familiar from the work of Art & Language and other pioneers of Conceptual art; to a certain rhetoric of visual frugality, impersonality, and order associated with that era. Though the work invokes some suggestive issues, among them the ideas of the artist as “do-it-yourselfer” and of the art object as replica, these are fused in a willed muteness. Since to play the wax cylinders is also to erase them, their accuracy cannot be verified; the cylinders entomb the voices they are supposed to preserve. Meant to approach history, the work actually places it at the furthest remove. Its formal closure embodies a dead-end, a familiar dissipation of meaning less compelling in practice than it perhaps remains in contemplation—our anticipation of the work’s subsequent 17 hours is less than breathless.

The kites, on the other hand, manage to disencumber themselves of all this. They are lovely in the way that any well-designed and well-constructed thing is, but they do not remind us of art. Yet, grounded there in the gallery as they are, like half-skinned skeletons, they take on overtones of melancholy and futility not so different from that of the cylinders, but far more subtle. The photographs, in a more emphatic way than the kites, are “beautiful.” Though produced by a mechanism, their prodigious angles, their blur and sweep, their command of ground really communicate the lyricism of flight. Their nominal author is that tiny figure almost lost on a vast terrain below, to whose presence we are directed only by the arc of colored string which trails off in his direction. These works, too, create a closed circuit, but one that gathers rather than sheds implication along the way.

Barry Schwabsky