James Gilbert

A pointed critique of the current regime of safety-consciousness, “Warnings & Instructions,” James Gilbert’s recent exhibition, took as its starting point a cartoonlike replica of a plane crash: an almost life-size fuselage, severed into three sections, and two lifeboats, all arrayed across the expansive floor of Dallas Contemporary’s new space. Made from safety-orange plywood armatures covered by a patchwork of plastic in various shades of pink, these structures had the plump proportions and candy colors of toys. To further emphasize the disturbing blitheness, Gilbert embellished the lifeboats with playground equipment. The mast of one vessel sports a basketball hoop, while a pool slide descends from its stern; a seesaw sits on the gunwale of the other boat—the effect is Théodore Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa reimagined as a pleasant diversion. Gilbert’s casual craftsmanship—threads dangle from the plastic’s seams, and the boats’ wooden oars are scrappily handmade—adds to the insouciant air.

Videos played on screens scattered throughout the gallery. Several tiny monitors occupied cracks and voids in the scarred cinder-block walls of the space (formerly a metal shop), while a replica of the airplane’s so-called black box held another. These portray a shirtless man swimming underwater; the fact that he never comes up for air confirms that all is not well in candy land. Also striking an ominous tone is a video lampooning standard airline-safety admonitions. On screens situated inside the plane’s central fragment, a mouth, seen in extreme close-up, delivers ludicrously inappropriate advice—such as “No pushing unless the people in front of you are slow” and “Look under your seat for free stuff”—in the emotionless tone of official condescension that tends to inform such instructions.

In the nose and tail sections of the fuselage, large video screens show Gilbert involved in a variety of quick interactions with cheap, brightly colored swimming-pool air mattresses. He arranges them into a pattern on the floor and takes a nap. He then wraps himself in them and lies down (with evident difficulty) across a safety-orange chair before rolling onto the floor. In these and other vignettes, Gilbert presents the viewer with a paradox: The air mattresses might cushion his landing, but they contributed to his fall in the first place. Sometimes, there is peril in trying to protect ourselves.

As a whole, the installation examines the ways in which safety measures and the fears they presuppose become a subtle means of social control. By situating his audience in a playground where droning imperatives are audible, Gilbert suggests that standard warnings and instructions infantilize their audience. The presumption that a society’s safety and welfare are best insured by a remote authority—a grownup—relieves the social body of its autonomy and endows it with anxiety. And yet the playground is a disaster. The plane crashed. All the helpful advice appears to have outlived the victims. In Gilbert’s scenario, we are on our own.

Michael Odom