New York

Ann Messner

Dorsky Gallery Curatorial Programs

Ever hear about the guy who rode an elevator with his back to the doors, causing others getting on to do the same thing? Ann Messner’s performances in the subways—like one in which she exercised on a rowing machine placed in a pedestrian tunnel during rush hour—might seem to belong to the same type of attention-getting spectacle as that psychology experiment–cum–urban legend. Yet Messner’s antics weren't really intended to provoke a reaction. Instead, she used the crowd, the constant flow of people, as an artistic medium—a somewhat malleable mass to be acted upon, within, or against. Her performances in crowds between 1977 and 1979, documented in photos and on film, made up “Subway Stories and Other Shorts,” the gallery’s inaugural show.

Desk Bell, 1978, records Messner ringing a bell placed on a subway turnstile, again during rush hour. Her pings issued a precise rhythm more in sync with the steady flow of the crowd than with the movements of individuals within it. Balloon, 1977, has the artist slowly inflating a huge balloon inside a packed subway car, as passengers silently accommodate the growing presence. That same year, in Airtank, she one-upped those who wear paper-filter masks by walking through a crowded car while hooked up to an oxygen tank, a performance documented here in four photographs; in 1978 she descended to the underground in scuba attire, complete with a snorkel, in Frogman. Just as the aforementioned Rowing Machine, 1978, had her stroking through a river of humanity, the mass of bodies in Frogman is again a metaphoric body of water. It’s also tempting to see Messner in this piece as the ultimate alien or “undesirable,” stared at but not acknowledged as she walked the full length of the train, her flippers, along with the swaying of the cars, giving her a somewhat drunken gait.

Of course, things have changed over the last two decades. Desk Bell couldn’t be done today, having been preempted by the chorus of aggravating beeps emitted by the electronic turnstiles themselves. And given the beefed-up “theft prevention” now common in stores, Stealing, 1978—one of two nonsubway pieces, in which Messner blatantly swipes T-shirts beneath the surveillance camera of a German department store—would probably include an intervention by security officers, who might see the brashness of her crime as a sign of mental illness. The works’ feminist aspects (Nina Felschin, the show’s curator, comments in the catalogue essay on allusions to pregnancy in Balloon, and to birthing in Rowing Machine) seem rather dated today in light of more complex debates over the relationship between feminism and art.

But in art as in pop culture, everything twenty years old is suddenly cool again, and Messner’s pseudosociological projects have a renewed cachet thanks to younger artists like Gillian Wearing, whose video Dancing in Peckham, 1994, has her dancing alone in the atrium of a shopping mall. The “Subway Stories” are mischievously humorous (the thief in Stealing sports large mirrored sunglasses), yet not without a creepy tinge. Experiments without a hypothesis, they make wry and discomforting observations on the interplay of individual psychology and crowd dynamics just below the surface of everyday life.

Julie Caniglia