Rachel Harrison and Scott Lyall

Near the center of Rachel Harrison and Scott Lyall’s recent sprawling collaborative exhibition “When Hangover Becomes Form” sat a large shipping container in which Harrison’s work had been transported to the gallery. Opened, this erstwhile horn of plenty had disgorged its contents into the gallery: A cardboard box in the crate indicated that it had contained, among other works, something called VOMIT SPIRE. Throughout the space, elements culled from earlier Harrison assemblages, including nine tumescent, paint-slathered abstract sculptures recycled from her 2003 Venice Biennale contribution Indigenous Parts III, found temporary homes atop either plinths or Lyall’s minimal, accumbent structures of pink foam insulation and MDF.

While promiscuous in its incorporation of everything from Q-tips to an image of Mel Gibson, the installation was nonetheless carefully plotted. Lyall’s platformlike planes charted much of the exhibit’s rambling horizontal axis, while Harrison’s works invested the space with a vertical anthropomorphic dimension. Still, the full scope of the installation was difficult to process, a single point of entry impossible to establish. The contemplation of isolated visual events, such as the way the hole in one of Harrison’s sculptures framed, depending on one’s vantage point, either a smiley-face plastic bag or a video projection, required consistent attention while moving through the space.

Presiding over the whole tangled affair was a foamcore-mounted image of Ronald Reagan as painted by Hans Haacke for his installation Oelgemaelde, Hommage à Marcel Broodthaers, 1982. This quotation from the history of spectacularized installation art diverged into a commentary on the excesses of ’80s celebrity as one moved past the Gipper toward a makeshift plinth propping up a second image, of a leopard-print-clad Cher. In the opposite corner of the room, an abstract sculpture clad in a mesh muscle shirt echoed Cher’s campy vibe (the late president looks suitably disapproving).

Debris scattered around the installation, including an empty champagne bottle and a few cans of Red Bull, seemed like detritus from some strange party: Collaborative social structure and provisional formal structure, having been thus implicated in a culture of excess and spectacle, were thus thoroughly drained of their utopian potential. A video projection of a frog on a rock appeared as the alter ego both of the by now overtaxed viewer and of Harrison’s biomorphic abstractions. Elsewhere, Internet printouts containing information on epidermoid cysts countered an implied idyll.

Working in consultation with curator Dan Adler, Lyall and Harrison did not radically reimagine their works in this show so much as settle them together in a way that was as mutually constraining as it was ludic. Our experience of their independent practices to date registered as a “hangover” as much as did the legacy of Harald Szeemann’s “When Attitudes Become Form,” the seminal 1969 exhibition invoked by the Vancouver show’s title, which marked the emergence of a freedom in exhibition practice that now plays out as a ubiquitous “installationist” aesthetic. In this sense, “Hangover” reflected on the paralysis paradoxically engendered by freedom. Lyall’s contributions retained their sense of abstracted social arenas, while Harrison’s continued to function as singular objects of individual contemplation, resulting in a tendency toward mutual nullification. The same might be said for the installation’s alignment of the categories of information and form. Just as these numerous fragments seemed on the verge of congealing into an undifferentiated lump, they separated into an elegantly balanced orbit, only to clump together again. The oscillation was, finally, oddly sobering, offering a ruthlessly equivocal and intelligent rumination on the circuits of exchange that constitute collaboration.

Trevor Mahovsky