Adrienne Spier

Adrienne Spier’s sculptural installation Unwanted, Broken and Useless, 2006, the single work that constituted the whole of her recent show, seems at first glance to be merely a spare assortment of old furniture, albeit one that appears to have been deliberately arranged for some elusive purpose. An orderly row of four damaged wooden modernist chairs stand to the left side of the gallery. One has a missing seat; all have stained upholstery. But such details of ordinary wear and tear pale into insignificance given that the furniture has undergone radical surgery, having been dismembered and reassembled by the artist.

The seats are hinged and held together by thin, shiny cables pulled through tiny holes. The cables here extended upwards—via a system of weights and pulleys—through the ceiling beams, and down again to an oval dining table held vertically, with its underside facing the viewer. A diagram displayed nearby instructs visitors to push the table toward the wall. Compliance leads to an abrupt conclusion: The cables loosen and the chairs topple over like dominoes. But a vigorous pull on a red handle causes the whole setup to return, noisily, to its previous position.

Visitors to Spier’s show, however, tended not to spend much time in awe of the engineering acumen that had informed the building of the artist’s absurdist contraption. Rather than resting on her technical laurels, the artist has performed a more impressive feat—that of effectively conveying the metaphorical resonance of viewers’ participation, the simple acts of pushing and pulling transforming pieces of furniture into laboratory animals, hapless victims of a cruel experiment.

The installation’s other component, the scarred remnant of a wooden desk, appears also to have been the victim of an act of violence. The desk’s drawers have been removed and its sides amputated, then reattached, hinges allowing the object to lie flat and prone on the battered floor. A pair of weights—composed of antique stereo components and timber pieces—are attached to the desk with cables and pulleys. Two participants are required to press down on the weights simultaneously in order to achieve the elevation of the desk’s central portion and a corresponding downward release of the hinged legs, which roll delicately along on casters. For a moment, the two opposing participants face one another and regard an object resembling a desk before a communal letting-go results in a jarring crash. The work’s do-it-yourself, low-tech, socially playful nature recalls Allan Kaprow’s Environments.

The combination of blunt absurdity and formal restriction exhibited by Spier’s choice of objects nods to the dream logic of Marcel Duchamp’s readymades, such as In Advance of the Broken Arm, 1915, a snow shovel hung from the ceiling. But Spier’s focus on obvious traces of use makes her works perhaps more reminiscent of Robert Rauschenberg’s Combines. Here, they are concerned with the furniture itself—its physical history as a functional object and its anthropomorphized status as the apparent subject of both playfulness and brutality.

Dan Adler