How do we see the space around us? How do we impose structure on it? And how do we inhabit it?
Those are a few of the questions raised by a new exhibit at the Henry Art Gallery, “The Ghost of Architecture: Recent and Promised Gifts.”
Organized by Luis Croquer, the Henry’s deputy director of art and education, the show — at its best — casts a genuinely fresh eye on our connections with our surroundings, whether we’re talking a Vermont granite quarry, a Berlin department store or the ancient alleyways of a Moroccan town.
Several videos provide the strongest highlights of “Ghost.”
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Israel artist Guy Ben-Ner’s “Stealing Beauty” — a playfully disorienting 18-minute drama you’ll want to watch in its entirety — is the most fun. It shows Ben-Ner and his family going about their domestic chores while bickering in heavily accented English, discussing everything from love to private property to Ben-Ner’s apparently excessive masturbation habit. But who are those other people who keep wandering into the scenes? And why is there a price tag on everything in this family’s “house”?
It turns out the video was shot on the sly in Ikea showrooms, and once you look past the goofy family drama, you’ll notice that this 2007 piece is a zany exercise in total scenic discontinuity.
The two kids’ hair length varies wildly from shot to shot; a bedtime chat between husband and wife takes place on at least half a dozen beds; and a single dishwashing session unfolds in three or four kitchens. It’s amazing how coherent this slice of family life feels, given how unstable its “architectural” backdrop is.
Christian Marclay’s “Telephones” (1995) pulls off a similar trick as it splices dozens of feature-film clips into a witty, high-speed meditation on the power the telephone has over us.
A silent telephone, Marclay seems to suggest, can charge a room with tension. And when it rings, our sense of our surroundings — a room’s geography, the company we’re keeping — can be drastically altered.
“Possessed” by Iranian-born Shirin Neshat is an eerier work. For 30 minutes, it follows a deeply disturbed woman as she navigates narrow alleyways that are initially deserted and then swarming with crowds (the film was shot in Essaouira, Morocco). Her presence triggers conflict in those crowds, yet she seems entirely disconnected from it. She couldn’t be more profoundly at odds with her surroundings.
The exhibit’s still photographs have almost as powerful an impact. There’s an especially clever juxtaposition of two color shots: Edward Burtynsky’s “Rock of Ages #14, Abandoned Granite Section, E.L. Smith Quarry, Barre, Vermont” (1992) and Stéphane Couturier’s “Edouard VII, Paris 9” (1997).
Burtinsky’s image, from a distance, looks like a bomb site or a partly demolished city block, rather than an old quarry excavation. Couturier’s image is of a partly demolished building. Placed next to each other, they alert you to how instinctively we read the possibility of shelter into structures that actually would leave you exposed to the elements.
Ross Sawyers’ “No Title (from the series ‘Approximations’)” (2006) subversively tampers with floor-plan expectations. What he shows us looks like a room — but with its superfluous floating wall and unidentified light source, it induces a deep sense of malaise.
Luisa Lambri’s “Untitled (The Miller House #3)” is similarly unsettlingly as it leaves you uncertain of whether you’re inside looking out or outside looking in. Another untitled shot of hers vividly contrasts rectilinear window-design with the organic branching of a tree on the other side of the glass.
“Ghost” includes less stimulating work: Corin Hewitt’s 72-minute “Wall” (2010), a video-recorded construction project that’s just an exercise in tedium, and Kevin Appel’s three “studies” of interior-design possibilities, which seem a little dry.
But there’s plenty else that’s eye-catching and provocative in this multifaceted show.
Michael Upchurch: email@example.com