“The Labyrinthine Effect”

In “The Labyrinthine Effect,” curator Juliana Engberg tracks a genealogy of artists who make mazes, from Bruce Nauman to Francis Alÿs. From time to time, the exhibition implies, certain symbols become important in culture. As Engberg notes in the show’s catalogue, the labyrinth is both a sculptural form and a synecdoche for the walk-in environment. (It’s also the dominating trope in interactive iCinema and games culture.) Almost all of the show’s labyrinths are installations that are at the same time historically self-conscious to the nth degree and irony free. Despite the literariness of her essay, which stresses modernity’s love affair with the maze and its perpetuation into the postmodern, Engberg’s Wunderkammer installation establishes the reverse: The widespread contemporary simulation of both allegory and interactivity comes without any of the lit-crit underpinning we’ve come to expect. The presence of works by venerable names like Nauman and Ilya and Emilia Kabakov really just masks this antiliterary break with the recent past.

This is consistent with particular types of cyclic, repetitive, episodic narrative familiar to us before now. Recent works by younger artists, such as Alÿs’s free-call phone tree, CIRCLE, Melbourne, 2003, Bristol-based John Pym’s claustrophobia-inducing, ceiling height–challenged Loaded, 2003, and Darwin-based Anne Ooms’s lounge setting of retro-thrift armchairs, reading lights, and artist’s books, The Ladies of Nairn, 1997/2003, are juxtaposed alongside the Kabakovs’ early reading room, 10 Albums, 1972–75, and Nauman’s thwarted-narcissist surveillance demonstration, Four Corner Piece, 1971. These labyrinths are markedly quest free; we see instead a snapshot of the contemporary zeitgeist, in which Michael Snow’s (absent) structuralist cinema and long zooms are reborn in Rodney Graham’s luminous How I Became a Ramblin’ Man, 1999, in which a lonesome cowboy, straight out of the Richard Prince of the ’80s, rides into the sunset and seamlessly back again in a continuous loop.

In the past Engberg has worked with many of the above-mentioned artists in derelict, temporary exhibition spaces. Now, as artistic director of the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, housed in a grand new building whose red-rusted iron folds are themselves extraordinarily labyrinthine, she shows that the contemporary labyrinth is less site-specific than it is an articulation of dense, cyclically structured detail. João Penalva’s video Kitsune, 2001, is composed of static camera shots of a hauntingly beautiful forest landscape forever reemerging from shrouds of creeping mist. This footage, shot on the island of Madeira, is the backdrop for two old, apparently Japanese tales about evil sisters, demons, and long journeys. The disjunction between beauty and evil unmasks nothing about the nature of representation—no irony, no deconstruction—and the video’s oddly mesmerizing conversation about ghost stories is remarkable principally because it is uncannily anachronistic. Marie-Ange Guilleminot’s The Labyrinth, 2003, is equally inscrutable. The messages it seems to hold are connected, though we never know how, with the archaeological traces of the labyrinth in its heritage setting. The muteness of the labyrinth’s stones is matched by the performer’s ritualistic, self-absorbed gestures, but Guilleminot makes the reason for the match quite deliberately difficult to pin down beneath landslides of detail and minor incident. The pivotal player, then, is an invisible, ghostly matrix that unfolds before our eyes, and the matrix is watermarked by repetition. What you see across “The Labyrinthine Effect”—a lot—is what you get.

Charles Green