New York

John Klima

Peppered with all-too-easily countered adjectives like “seamless” and “high resolution,” the press release for John Klima’s second solo exhibition here does him no favors. The artist’s own mention of The Matrix is similarly ill advised, throwing the gap between the movie’s faultless, hallucinatory virtual universe and the more conspicuous workings of Klima’s installations Train and Terrain (both 2003) into unflatteringly sharp contrast. And while Klima acknowledges that the computer technology that informs his practice is in its infancy, it’s still difficult to ignore the numerous technical glitches to which its use (which can often seem gratuitous) inevitably gives rise. While many installations spill their guts, physically or otherwise, an explication of the work’s internal structure is patently not part of Klima’s stated project.

Train, in the front gallery, consists of a hand-built model railway traversed by two trains, each of which carries a Nintendo Gameboy that displays the view from the train’s window and, periodically, the figures of one or more of eight famous passengers. For reasons that never become fully clear, these are all actors: Harvey Keitel as the rogue cop in Bad Lieutenant, Chloe Webb as Nancy Spungen in Sid and Nancy, Kirk Douglas as Vincent van Gogh in Lust for Life. By using their cell phones to dial into a menu of options, viewers may exercise some control over whom the trains pick up along the way. When two or more passengers board a train, they launch into a stilted “conversation” based on lines from their cinematic roles that viewers/callers can listen in on. For the phoneless, these brief, nonsensical exchanges are also relayed over speakers while the relevant images are projected on the wall.

If this all sounds rather convoluted, it is—convoluted but not necessarily complex. Look down again at the landscape through which the trains pass and you may notice that key scenes from the films in which the passengers appear are represented there by posed plastic figures, in an attempt, perhaps, to add another layer of intricacy or at least anecdotal detail. Unfortunately, if you are anything less than totally convinced by Train’s pretensions to chart the history of transport and communication, as well as the fractal effects of digital imaging on the possibilities of narrative, you may also become aware of the work’s profoundly banal appearance and wholehearted embrace of any gadget going. As is all too often the case, the carrot of interactivity here presages the visitor’s childish but irresistible feeling of disappointment at the obvious limitations of the spectacle implied that detracts from any original or productive inquiry the work purports to embody. Our “choices” are brutally truncated and their juxtaposition frankly unenlightening, even—perhaps especially—when the issues to which they allude remain in themselves broadly relevant.

Terrain is an experiment in 3-D animation that reaches for the future but ends up looking more like a castoff from the early years of kinetic art. A fabric-covered bed of mechanical rods that pop up and down according to the pattern of light falling on a sensor and to images projected across the bed’s surface, Terrain converts pure information into movement in physical space. Though described as a radical innovation, the effect is curiously anachronistic, a blend of old and new technologies reminiscent of the ’40s-infused futurism of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. Had Klima elected to capitalize on his machine’s shortcomings, he might have stood a better chance at winning our sympathy. As it is, he drapes the work in awestruck terminology and leaves us far behind.

Michael Wilson