Melvin Moti, Eigengrau (The Inner Self in Outer Space), 2011, color photograph, 19 5/8 x 25 5/8".

Melvin Moti, Eigengrau (The Inner Self in Outer Space), 2011, color photograph, 19 5/8 x 25 5/8".

Melvin Moti

Melvin Moti, Eigengrau (The Inner Self in Outer Space), 2011, color photograph, 19 5/8 x 25 5/8".

In a darkened section of the gallery, a film projector cast an image onto the wall: the barren, gray surface of the moon pocked with craters. Looking down as if floating above it, the camera bobs and swivels. Next, the film observes the interaction of floating, gently spinning glass vases, which draw meteoric paths in slow motion. The vases, the carved wooden spoons, and the repoussé gold-leafed eighth-century Thai Buddha seen in the 35-mm film appeared as well in a series of photographs occupying the gallery’s other room. These objects are replicas of works in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London—or actual pieces identical to ones in the collection in the case of the vases, which were industrially produced in the nineteenth century. And it is that museum’s method of display that Melvin Moti took as the subject of his critique in this exhibition, titled after the film and photographs that together make up Eigengrau (The Inner Self in Outer Space), 2011—Eigengrau being a German coinage for the color one sees in absolute darkness.

The V&A has always elided the sociohistorical significance of its collection in order to promote a material, aesthetic viewing experience; in the text of the artist’s book that accompanies the exhibition, Moti extends his critique of this practice to the museum’s current form. In the artist’s photographs, authentic and reconstructed artifacts sit isolated against monochromatic orange, gray, or black backdrops. Presented in such a way, they call attention to their design and not much more. Rather than activating his treatment of these objects, Moti mimics the method that he critiques—reifying it, perpetuating it.

A museum that disregards the nuances of physical production, the conditions experienced by producers, or the society that consumed a given set of products is not unlike an artist who, in making a new body of work, does not fabricate the objects depicted, does not integrate them into an aesthetic agenda, and forgoes activating them critically. Moti himself acknowledges that art production cannot exist in a vacuum: “In our day and age,” he writes, “it’s inconceivable to consider any form of art removed from a social or historic context.” In fact, attending simultaneously to the work of making art as well as to the networks of its production, distribution, and reception is widespread in art today. Such a discourse frames Moti’s subject matter, while the logic of the readymade informs his own mode of production, and a Conceptual tradition of art grounds his integration of text. Crucially, though, access to this latter aspect of his work is restricted to those who undertake both “the art of looking” and “the art of buying”—the distinction derives from Moti’s criticism of the V&A for its prominent gift shop and its prioritization of engagement through capitalistic activity—since the textual component in this case takes the form of a thirty-page annotated essay for sale at the gallery as a limited-edition artist’s book.

Near its end, the film gradually goes out of focus as a multicolored vase slowly rotates. Colored forms separate into undulating geometries, kaleidoscopic arrangements of shimmering light. These color-shapes exemplify Moti’s interpretation of the Duchampian notion of the “infra-thin”––in which surfaces and brief moments offer a “spiritual gateway” leading between the artist’s intention in making an object and its future relevance. Purportedly following Duchamp’s lead, Moti expresses a belief in a transcendental capacity of objects. However, in the case of this exhibition, surfaces are not promising sites from which to mine meaning, whereas the critical engagement with the politics of display could have been a more fulfilling one.

––John Beeson