New York

Paul Etienne Lincoln

Looking at Paul Etienne Lincoln’s outlandish gadgets, one gets the impression of the artist as gentleman tinkerer: Think of his Equestrian Opulator ©, 1990–2000, a standing aluminum telescope that can peel an orange and set off flares while affording a relaxed viewing of horse races. His less whimsical projects, however, point not to an amusingly anachronistic wizard but to a forward-thinking intellect busy salvaging history from myth.

This crowded twenty-year survey of Lincoln’s editions and performance projects included models and relics alongside slick booklets and boxed sheaves providing context for and content of the elaborate works that were not on view. The necessity of so much close reading, combined with the subtlety and delicacy of the objects presented, slowed the viewing process to a crawl. In the elegant machine New York–New York, 1987–2003, a nonfunctioning model for which was included here, London-born Lincoln paid homage to his adopted hometown as the capital of twentieth-century technological innovation. Built for a single run (which has yet to occur) in a water main under Manhattan, New York–New York comprised an impressive array of archaic machinery (integrated circuits, electrostatic genera- tors) designed to evoke the legendary metropolis by playing snippets from its Broadway hits, punching out ticker tape, etc. The mythic subjects of Lincoln’s personage-based projects range from the early-twentieth-century opera prodigy Rosa Ponselle to Madame de Pompadour, the gifted mistress of Louis XV. Purplish photos and glass vials of water documented the sole performance of Ignisfatuus, 1996– 2000, that took place in a Baltimore garden: Arterial casts of a brain, heart, and lungs fluoresced to Ponselle’s recorded voice according to the lunar cycle and a system of light sensors, microswitches, and peristaltic pumps. In Tribute to Madame de Pompadour and the Court of Louis XV, 1985, in which bees and snails coexisted in a conical “court,” activating the systems of water and sugar that determined their survival, was represented here by scented handkerchiefs and etched-glass portraits. Die Berliner Zuckerbärin, 2002–2003, pumps transgenic milk (a sample was on view here) from a stuffed female bear (the age-old symbol of Berlin), spins it into glass filament, winds it with unraveled yarn from Berlin-themed tapestries, and wraps the resulting braid around the busts of three Berlin geneticists.

Hovering between two notions of history—as persistent (in the form of memories and emotions that can be triggered in the present by new objects not directly referring to the subject) and lost (brilliantly, the machines themselves are designed to be mortal, to become nonfunctional after one run)—Lincoln’s projects seem to suspend a moment, reifying it briefly as a spark in the present that soon winks out. His ingenious approach forges a heretofore untrodden path into memory, as this retrospective, with its necessary reliance on relics from one-time-only performances and models of machines that are both absent and defunct, made abundantly clear. Using the now-outdated cutting-edge tools of yesterday in order to poeticize the past and articulate the issues of tomorrow, Lincoln offers a reflective, literary treatment of a world whose continuity is often obscured by the pace of progress and where cultural response tends to lag behind scientific innovation.

Nell McClister