New York

“Loop”

P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center

About halfway through this selective survey of formal and conceptual circularity in contemporary art, one encountered a large wall text reading IT'S ONLY JUST BEGUN. This proclamation (a 1993 “instruction” work by Douglas Gordon) would have served nicely at the show's entrance as a kind of deadpan slogan, but its placement in the middle of the installation is both sly and appropriate. Keenly reflexive, Instruction (#4) exemplifies the way in which all the works here seamlessly repeat, merging beginning and end in cyclical continuity.

Organized by chief curator Klaus Biesenbach (and traveling to P.S. 1 from the Munich Kunsthalle, where it debuted last fall), the exhibition assembled a motley group of fifteen artists related solely by their engagement with the loop, an increasingly popular device. The diversity of media represented (photography, sculpture, and performance were in evidence, with film and video constituting a majority) reflected Biesenbach's broad interpretation of the theme. Even at its most straightforward, the form of the loop can produce powerful and uncanny results. Paul Pfeiffer turns Hollywood horrific by transforming Tom Cruise's infamous Risky Business sofa dance into a perpetual seizurelike spasm, while Heike Baranowsky has us holding our breath while her Schwimmerin crawls ceaselessly across a never-ending pool.

The most resonant works, however, conceive of the loop less literally, mining the rich psychological and ontological implications of more allegorical kinds of repetition. In Rodney Graham's projection City Self Country Self, 2000, the artist as country bumpkin is unceremoniously welcomed to the city by a kick in the pants from his urban-dandy doppelgänger. Playing with ideas of history, class, and doubling, City Self Country Self comments on the pathology of exploitation and the crueler side of human nature. Bruce Nauman's Bouncing in the Cow, 1968, treats similarly dark themes with decidedly less humor. Here the artist rocks in a comer of his studio for an hour in a kind of obsessive-compulsive endurance test, suggesting the intense isolation of artistic production-and perhaps the weighty frustration of obeying the modernist injunction to make art about art.

The tour de force is Francis Alÿs's Reenactments, 2000. This two-channel video projected on adjacent screens documents the artist's recent “action” in which he purchased a pistol, loaded it, and carried it casually through the streets of Mexico City until he was arrested (it took just over five minutes). One screen shows the walk, filmed as it happened; on the other we see a reenactment, complete with staged arrest. The piece nods to such troubling television spectacles as Cops and America's Most Wanted while remarking on the erosion of the distinction between fiction and reality. It ultimately seems to imply that this distinction must be maintained, even if actual risk is the sole means of recognizing it.

Other artists here use the loop to structure real-world interventions that highlight the Sisyphean nature of labor in a fully globalized economy. In Nedko Solakov's A Life (Black and White), 1999–2000 (shown at last year's Venice Biennale) one museum guard paints a room white while another follows around the space painting the walls black. Like a snake eating its tail, both workers' work is constantly erased, their labor wasted in utter futility. Santiago Sierra also aims to underscore the modern worker's plight in “performances” whose execution threatens to veer into exploitation. Sierra typically hires day laborers to do physically demanding and often demeaning tasks; the baldly titled Eight People Remunerated to Stay in the Interior of Cardboard Boxes, 1999, is a photographic record of one such project.

The many complex themes resonant with (and inherent to) the form of the loop, whether historical amnesia, cyclical exploitation, or personal trauma, have proved fertile ground for these artists. Yet they might have been more clearly fleshed out had there been some additional inclusions: Stan Douglas's Der Sandmann, Tacita Dean's Green Ray, and Thomas Demand's Rolltreppe (Escalator) come to mind, as does Graham's Verwandlungsmusik, which deals explicitly with the loop. But while the show was too small to thoroughly survey current practices of looping and too general to advance an argument of its own, ultimately it provided a welcome introduction. Maybe someone else will pick up where “Loop” left off.

Jordan Kantor