Cerith Wyn Evans

Eight years after his solo debut at White Cube in London, the work of Cerith Wyn Evans—a fixture in European galleries and museums—finally arrived in the United States at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. It was worth the wait, as I discovered as soon as I came face-to-face with the five-foot-wide concave mirror (Inverse, Reverse, Perverse, 1996) that is the show’s curtain-raiser. The title refers to the three reflections one encounters when approaching the work: from a distance of about four feet, an upside-down, warped view of the visual field; a step closer, a blown-up image of one’s torso, along with a percussive echo; another step, a more conventional mirror image, albeit alarmingly close up. Beyond this introduction, the rather spare installation has a simple sequence: After Inverse, Reverse, Perverse comes a room hung with striking black-and-white photographs by Wyn Evans’s father (accompanied by a large wall text that interrupts the sequence); a corridor containing a forlorn coaxial cable in a vitrine; and, finally, a set of seven glass, crystal, and silver chandeliers blinking out Morse code in a large empty gallery.

The cable was on loan to the exhibition from the nearby MIT List Visual Arts Center and embodies qualities that are themselves the mirror images of those preserved by the beaux arts museum. For the singular, finished sculpture, substitute the mass-produced industrial good. For the artwork whose merit is intrinsic, substitute the artifact whose sole attraction, according to Wyn Evans’s wild imagination, is that it may have been part of the very telegraph (or telephone) network over which Marcel Duchamp corresponded with his collectors, the Arensbergs.

One feels the legacy of Duchamp not only in this piece but even in the one work that seems drenched in pathos, the sequence of black-and-white photographs of anthropomorphic driftwood and portraits made by Cerith’s father, Sulwyn Evans. The series is both a touching homage by the younger Evans to the man who introduced him to art and a poignant reminder of the generational divide between a father for whom art was a matter of creating beautiful new forms and a son whose practice revolves around concepts and ideas rather than traditional norms of aesthetic beauty.

“Dialogue” is a term that permeates discussions of Wyn Evans’s work, but in his installations, communication often fails or seems to slow down. One of these message inhibitors is technology, particularly obsolete modes, like the telegraphy so cannily represented by the MIT cable. Other obstacles to language include the act of translation and the limitations of its material support, both of which are apparent in the chandelier works. The speed at which the lights flicker, constantly transforming the sensorial field, contrasts starkly with the tedium of waiting for the words they are translating into Morse code to appear on the computer screens nearby. I did not stick around long enough to read all the snippets of Michel de Certeau, Judith Butler, and others. I just let myself be dazzled by the lights, recalling one of Wyn Evans’s favorite sayings (and the title of an excellent concurrent exhibition of his work at the List): “Thoughts unsaid, now forgotten . . .”

Paul Galvez