New York

Gelatin

Spencer Brownstone Gallery

Gelatin, a cheeky quartet of expert bricoleurs with the mien of Euro pop stars, wowed New Yorkers last summer with their installation “Percutaneous Delights” at P.S. 1. In their most recent Manhattan show, “Suck & Blow,” the Vienna-based artists fashioned an inner membrane of black plastic garbage bags—kind of an inverse Christo job. More environment than installation, the effect was something like walking into the belly of a beast through its ass-end.

After signing a waiver, viewers stooped a bit to enter a twenty-five-foot-long tunnel—lined with garbage bags whose edges had been melted together—that opened into a similarly bedecked gallery with fourteen-foot-high ceilings: Imagine a Claes Oldenburg-size balloon that didn’t seem to fit the room. This contraption didn’t inflate, however; instead, two industrial-strength fans (one above the tunnel, the other in a back room) sucked the air between the membrane and the gallery walls, ceiling, and floor, drawing the plastic skin tight around its confines. As the fans went through their on-and-off cycles, the tunnel lining expanded and contracted like a sphincter—an effect all the more pronounced as exiting visitors popped forth from the plastic into the small white vestibule.

Inside the black chamber, a fluorescent tube provided the sole source of illumination. At the beginning of each cycle, the fans cranked up with a cacophony of squeaks and clanks, as the plastic began to rise and form itself into walls and ceiling. The entire process took about five minutes, by which time the room appeared to be vacuum-packed or coated in an almost luminous rubbery substance. The fluorescent bulb cast a beautiful, pillowlike shadow onto the rear wall with a trompe l’oeil effect that made it appear either convex or concave. The whole room had a sleek, sexy, graphite glow, and a futon considerately placed beneath the plastic along one wall helped to create a chic-yet-cheap Wallpaper-esque lounge fantasy.

The taut perfection lasted but a moment before the fans shut off, enveloping the room in silence. It quickly came alive in a whole other way during the “exhale” cycle (indeed, in this respect the more apt simile became the blackened lung of a beast rather than its belly). The plastic walls melted, and the ceiling wafted down with soft crinkling sounds, which were soothing yet ominous. Deliberately contradicting the familiar THIS IS NOT A TOY warnings on regular-size plastic bags, Gelatin seemed to have created a toy easily capable of effecting mass suffocation. (Happily, the fans rewed up again before the ceiling met the floor.)

The combination of playful exuberance and flirting with danger characterizes many projects by Gelatin, whose members have been working as a group since 1995. “Percutaneous Delights,” for example, included a “chill-out” room made from old refrigerators (brazenly flouting another child-safety warning), and an assortment of old office furniture piled into a seemingly unstable twenty-five-foot tower that one could scale from the inside.

It would be tempting to say that by putting a huge garbage bag inside a gallery, Gelatin was engaging in an irreverent institutional critique. Mostly, however, “Suck & Blow” was designed as an ephemeral aesthetic entertainment experience. In that respect, the collective is in step with a growing number of artists who, on some level or another, compete against the creators of more vivid spectacles (for TV, movies, Broadway shows, video games). It’s a trend that, in its extreme, can make doing the rounds of Chelsea or SoHo akin to visiting an intellectual theme park. But in this case even cynics could be seduced by a production so ingeniously low-tech.

Julie Caniglia