New York

Ohad Meromi

Harris Lieberman

Ease of retrospection has become a defining quality of our era. The Internet facilitates the unearthing of impossibly obscure curiosities, enabling equally obscure referencing. For current artists, the reference points of modernism cast especially long shadows; artists like Carol Bove and Mai-Thu Perret have constructed their practices on a dialogue with modernist design, dance, architecture, and art-historical movements, and on the strains of utopian thought embedded in all of them. Ohad Meromi is another artist preoccupied with modernism’s persistent influence. In an interview published to accompany his second exhibition at Harris Lieberman Gallery, Meromi speaks of his interest in the residua of modernism, manifest here in a two-part video referencing Bertolt Brecht’s play The Exception and the Rule (1930–31) and a skeletal, gallery-spanning architectural installation.

The exhibition’s press release claims that Who Owns the World?, 2008, (the title is a reference to the subtitle of a 1932 Brecht film), an installation of wooden frames forming the outline of a potentially habitable structure, evokes “manifold sources of influence” including Russian Constructivist theater design, the architecture of Israeli kibbutzes, and “late modern institutional architecture and public space” (a frame of reference broad enough to include just about everything). Who Owns the World? is in fact rather spare. Peppered throughout beams delineating separate rooms are cheerful bursts of color; the Jewish religious garments hanging in the “dressing room,” for example, introduce flashes of emerald green. Craft objects, a stool, a magazine rack, and speakers broadcasting the strummed pastoral sound track to the video The Exception and the Rule (Schitopolis), 2007, are scattered about. All are handmade with economical competence.

Resembling an unfinished kindergarten, the work is intended, Meromi contends, to function as a fantasy of communal living. In reality, objects within the installation, such as a solitary acoustic guitar and a small architectural model (perhaps an elaborated version of the same structure), could just as easily signify the refuges of a hermit as opposed to catalysts of social interaction. The structure’s bare, uninhabited look gives it a certain tenuousness, but there’s nothing about the installation that specifically signals the utopian connotations that Meromi attributes to it in print.

The two videos are abstract narratives set in desertlike and largely deserted landscapes, their stories told mostly through the characters’ physical interactions with one another. The parched plains, combined with the characters’ wardrobe of mostly traditional Jewish garments, give both The Exception and the Rule (Trois Gaules), 2007, and The Exception and the Rule (Schitopolis) the whiff of timeless but slightly underwhelming epics. They are similar in this regard to Meromi’s video Cyclops II, 2005, which loosely recounts Euripides’ play of the same name. Each of these new works preserves Meromi’s characteristic amateurishness (low-budget production, obviously untrained actors), especially the Schitopolis version, which feels like the first take of a dance performance.

Plotwise, Meromi’s videos are meandering and dreamlike: There is both communion and alienation among the actors, but the reasons for each remain indeterminate. As evidenced in interviews, Meromi’s ideas about his work are timely, given the recent broadening of interest in the reinterpretation and renegotiation of modernism, especially (in light of the unconscionable imbalances of wealth and power that have continued and mostly worsened since modernism’s fading) in relation to collectivism and social responsibility. But what Meromi shows isn’t, as yet, as insightful or inspiring as what he says.

Nick Stillman