New York

Krzysztof Wodiczko, A House Divided . . . , 2019, 4K video projection on expanded polystyrene foam. Installation view.

Krzysztof Wodiczko, A House Divided . . . , 2019, 4K video projection on expanded polystyrene foam. Installation view.

Krzysztof Wodiczko

Have you ever met someone whose face is so compelling that you cannot process the words coming out of that spellbinding mouth? This sort of distraction was what was both entrancing and vexing about “A House Divided . . . ,” an exhibition at Galerie Lelong & Co. that featured several examples of Krzysztof Wodiczko’s video projections from the past dozen years. For most of these works, the artist projected the images and voices of refugees, immigrants, and ordinary citizens onto buildings and statues.

In one of the galleries was Four Public Projections, 2020, a looped video showing some of Wodiczko’s older pieces. The most unsettling of these, Loro (Them), 2019, featured a fleet of drones that flew over Milan’s Parco Sempione. Each device—outfitted with a pair of disembodied eyes—buzzed about and broadcast a harrowing immigration tale. One narrator told the story of his escape from Niger to Tripoli, Libya, and how all of his friends were killed. Yet what does the viewer take away? Not the brutal anecdotes, necessarily, but those restless eyes.

The Kunstmuseum Projection, 2008, which focused on undocumented immigrants in Switzerland, was the most affecting work appearing in this compilation. Here, the legs of Wodiczko’s subjects were projected onto a museum in Basel, making it look as if a group of headless figures—with hands gesturing on knees, fingers snapping, and legs swinging—were sitting on the roof of the building. Their owners chatted matter-of-factly about how poorly the Swiss treat them. Perhaps because no faces were there to compel one’s attention, one could really listen.

In the gallery’s darkened main room was the exhibition’s titular piece, A House Divided . . . , 2019, which featured two replicas of the monumental seated Abraham Lincoln sculpture that’s part of the president’s memorial in Washington, DC. These larger-than-life figures were installed to appear as though they were facing off against one another. Various faces were projected onto the visage of each sculpture, from which boomed accompanying voices: dialogue based on recordings of Staten Island residents arguing about abortion, immigration, socialism, racism, guns, and Darwinism. At one point, a man named Alan praised President Trump: “We needed a leader that was going to say, ‘We’re America. . . . We’re the best.’” To this, a woman responded: “Fascist . . . fascist!” Respoding to that, another woman, Dawn, shouted, “Libtard . . . libtard!” Each mobile face was grotesquely distorted by being superimposed onto Lincoln’s head. Despite the vicious language, what stayed with me most was the repellent vision of our sixteenth president reborn as a horrible racist named Dawn.

In Making Memory Matter: Strategies of Remembrance in Contemporary Art (2006), the art historian Lisa Saltzman described Wodiczko’s work as “an intervention into the culture of silence.” That is, Wodiczko—born in Warsaw to a Jewish mother in 1943, the year of the ghetto uprising there—seems to have one overriding intention: to jolt the observer into hearing voices that might not otherwise be heard. Somehow, though, Wodiczko’s visual spectacles—eyes afloat on the wings of drones, buildings blinking sadly, giant statues coming to life—often overwhelm their accompanying narratives. Indeed, the artist’s “historical” projections seem akin, as Saltzman noted, to Tony Oursler’s “hysterical” video effigies, in which voices rant from whatever puppet or surface they’re trapped in. Maybe that’s OK, though, because the point of Wodiczko’s work seems not so much storytelling itself, but provocative interruption. As the art historian Rosalyn Deutsche once noted, Wodiczko “fissures the space of the self.”

This show opened concurrently with the unveiling of Wodiczko’s Monument, 2020, in New York’s Madison Square Park. There, the statue of the Civil War hero David Glasgow Farragut (dedicated in 1881) provided the body onto which Wodiczko projected the faces and hands of several refugees who detailed, in an accompanying soundtrack, the terrors they endured emigrating to the United States from Africa, Central America, South Asia, and the Middle East. One person described the police smashing his camera out of spite; another talked about being separated from her child for ten years. But even these dark reports could not really compete with the astonishing spectacle of seeing a monument talking, or with the sensation that one had attended a séance in the middle of the city.