Los Angeles

Jennifer Steinkamp


Time: late night, 1970s. Scene: a party leaving Halston’s Paul Rudolph-designed town house for the newly opened Studio 54. “Sterling St. Jacques kissed Mrs. Vreeland twice. Het told her that she had to come to Studio 54. ’It’s very futuristic,’ he said. ’Bianca is going to ride in on a white horse with two nude men,’ said Joe Eula, a friend of Halston’s. Marina Schiano, who represents Yves Saint Laurent in this country, said that she, too, thought Studio 54 was futuristic. She said that the elaborate lighting at Studio 54 constituted ’an art form.’ ’I’ve never understood that—about art forms,’ Mrs. Vreeland said. ’People say a little Schiaparelli design is an art form. Why can’t it just be a very good dress?” So George W.S. Trow notes near the close of his profile of music mogul Ahmet Ertegun, which concluded the original edition of Within the Context of No Context (the passage was strangely dropped from subsequent republication, despite its acumen on aesthetic issues).

More than twenty years later, Jennifer Steinkamp’s light-and-music installation recalls Diana Vreeland’s question but fails to answer it. Despite its placement in a gallery, They Eat Their Wounded, 2000, isn’t Dan Flavin with a good bass beat. Nor is it the next step in Light and Space. It’s no big whoop: a fairly mediocre laser show. Projected linear “cubes”—sunset orange to hot pink, white-green spiked with red—rotate slowly to pulsing New Age-y techno music by frequent Steinkamp collaborator Jimmy Johnson. The lines change color and squiggle quickly; at times the cubes brighten and seem to meld into larger multihedric forms. One critic; has written that the piece is reminiscent of a late-’60s/early-’70s Turrell “with all the exaggerated solemnity drained out and replaced with an infusion of sheer bodily joy.” But drain the solemnity from and the manner of working it,-culminates - most Minimalist light pieces and you’re in this representation of the physical left with something like a sunset, the “Naples ultra” of special-effects illumination, but a lot less interesting.

Failing to transform either the space or the viewer’s conception of it, Steinkamp’s projections remain flat as they literally are; the viewers’ shadows moving among the twinkling cubes just highlight that flatness. Given the vaunted good vibes of Steinkamp’s project, why not at least really toy with the perception of space and have viewers, say, wear 3-D glasses, that is, actually experiment with where and how light invades space and surrounds bodies? In another part of the gallery, studies for various pieces, while well executed, prove to be just variations on a slight theme. Somebody needs to get out more.

You don’t have to study with Tony Award-winning lighting designer Jennifer Tipton or know about French avant-garde lightscaper Yves Godin or, even more to the point, meditate on the lighting extravaganza of Kraftwerk’s 1998 tour to figure out that there’s not much going on here. Especially in light of the brilliance of such work, Vreeland’s question remains a good one. What is to be gained with the invocation of art? Is it merely a superlative or is there something more at stake? There’s a lot in the world that’s more interesting than art, and none of it needs to be called art to be worthy of care and appreciation. In fact, even calling Steinkamp’s work an art form is an unnecessary tedium. There’s something really awry in nominating as art a light show that is so unenlightened.

Bruce Hainley