Bristol, UK

Elizabeth Price

Spike Island

WELCOME appears projected in large, bright yellow Barbara Krugeresque lettering on the opening screen of Elizabeth Price’s film series “New, Ruined Institute.” The first two parts of this unfinished trilogy, WELCOME (The Atrium), 2008, and USER GROUP DISCO (The Hall of Sculptures), 2009, were on view here. The imposing invitation contrasted with the disorienting pitch-black space, filled with an intense musical score by Jem Noble that employs samples ranging from John Carpenter to Joy Division. After five minutes, the first screen goes silent and the source of the music suddenly emerges from the darkness of the second gallery, prompting you to follow the sound blindly into the adjacent space. There you encountered the grand, wall-size film USER GROUP DISCO which depicts a fictional sculpture hall in which objects, machines, and kitchen utensils—magnificently photographed in black-and-white high definition—spin and float across the screen’s dark depths. Printed texts overlaid on the images describe anything from warped office-speak flow charts to creation myths and spiraling maelstroms imagined by Poe. Finally, while the music pounds on, the text descends into Dantesque annihilation (“a wide waste of liquid ebony/all whirling and plunging/. . . in precipitous descents”)—perversely accompanied by the thunderous, triumphant beat of a remixed karaoke version of a-ha’s 1980s Euro-pop classic “Take On Me.” The work begins with contradiction, ends in the same spirit, and yet is somehow perfectly coherent in its references to modernism, to ruins, and to the strange pleasure these both now give us.

The exuberance with which Price tackles themes regularly discussed today—museums, taxonomy, the ruins of modernism, the archive, the contemporary sublime—contrasts vividly with any dry debates that so often surround them. Here, modernism is not a historical conundrum but a bizarre spectacle, a marvelous disappointment that betrays its form-follows-function dogma to produce monster machines: a nutcracker shaped like a woman’s legs; an overcomplicated, hand-held cappuccino mixer. These objects dance through the Hall of Sculptures, looking at turns beautiful or hideous but keeping their sleek, overdesigned modernist promise intact—albeit mired in misogyny, or commodified excess.

One of modernism’s most seductive strategies was black-and- white photography (consider Stieglitz’s artfully convincing image of Duchamp’s Fountain). In Price’s film, that seduction is heightened in a moving palette of lustrous blacks—oozing liquid chocolate, vinyl, oil—which Price contrasts with other fetishized modernist surfaces: gleaming metal or Arp-like smooth white surfaces. But the white “marble,” for example, turns out to be a beautifully photographed ceramic money box—obscenely shaped like a crouching woman and bearing a text suggestive of anal sex. This is product design gone hap- pily awry. Meanwhile, the text pushes on—sometimes in hypnotic incantations, sometimes in technocratic newspeak (the title itself, USER GROUP DISCO, brilliantly conjures both abstracted, computer- based collective identities and real, pulsing, dancing bodies)—mimicking the disembodied voices which artists such as Kruger began ventriloquizing in the 1980s and which Price now manipulates by the dozen. USER GROUP DISCO is like an elaborate credit sequence, preparing us for a grand film that never arrives: Contemporaneity, the Movie, an anticlimactic mass of contradictions that contrasts with the formerly unified bombast of modernism. WE WILL ASSEMBLE ALL THIS SHATTERED STUFF, the text tells us, succinctly describing the job of contemporary art and culture—a task magisterially accomplished, if only for a brief fourteen minutes, by Price’s thought-provokingly funny piece.

Gilda Williams