New York

Ian Burns

Spencer Brownstone Gallery

With an engineer’s flair for coaxing unexpected function from unlikely materials—and a Conceptualist’s penchant for seeking ingenious ways to deploy that function—Ian Burns conceived his recent show as a series of exaggeratedly low-tech viewing stations. Burns stood out in P. S. 1 Contemporary Art Center’s “Greater New York 2005” with The Epic Tour, 2005, a room-size kinetic sculpture that had viewers riding a goofy trainlike vehicle past an array of colorful shadow boxes. Here again, he squeezed a ramshackle charm out of jerry-rigged apparatus—this time involving more shadow theater, as well as low-rent animatronics and what might be thought of as trompe l’oeil video installations—all powered by clunking exposed machinery. Yet where the content of The Epic Tour—mostly anodyne landscapes and generalized figures—was as offhand as its materials, Burns used his first New York solo appearance to intensify his subject matter, turning his attention to contemporary social ills and our voyeuristic, media-addled culture’s complicity in them.

Burns’s works are rough-hewn, provisional things. In Down By the Sea (all works 2005), a tiny camera trained on a bare light bulb, a fan, and a cruddy piece of blue Styrofoam feeds an image evoking a marine horizon onto an adjacent monitor screen, while 15 hrs v.2.2 approximates the view from an airliner’s window via another small camera, this one aimed at a black triangular form poised above a rotating disk dotted with tiny structures suggestive of distant scenery. Smart, focused works like these and Here in My Car, in which a mystifying array of junk is somehow animated to produce a melancholic projection of a vehicle moving through a rainy city, confirm Burns’s reputation for technically accomplished tinkering. Disappointingly, however, the artist’s attempts at topical critique turn out to be about as refined as the contraptions he devises to express it.

The show’s two most ambitious works, Remote Detonation #1-900 and Another Day at the Office, both demand viewer participation. In the former, visitors sit at a console topped by a single screen that depicts a figure clicking through a series of images on a small screen. As an array of familiar televisual diversions flash past—Mickey Mouse, a tank, a nude female torso—viewers push a button to select one on behalf of the surrogate couch potato, triggering a spasm of pleasure resulting in a crude glob of ejaculate that arcs from the puppet’s lap toward the screen. Another Day at the Office, the show’s centerpiece, recalls the form of The Epic Tour, with visitors locking themselves into a plywood cubicle in which, perched on a seat that swivels past a series of backlit shadowbox stations, they can initiate the unfolding of various predictably unhappy events—such as rockets heading toward an aircraft or one figure sodomizing another with a broom handle—with the push of a button.

While Burns should be commended for taking on serious issues in these queasy times—assailing the vivid hypocrisies of Imperial America and railing against the soullessness of the passive media consumer—the studied artlessness that serves his technical program so well is ultimately unable to articulate the gravity of his newfound content. Burns’s desire to rage against the machine will resonate with many viewers, but one can’t help but wonder if rage expressed with such broad naïveté doesn’t run the risk of simply fueling the very machine it opposes, rather than becoming a spanner in its works.

Jeffrey Kastner