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Think Thin

Thin Skin at BAM


he British critic Sir Herbert Read wrote in 1964 that from the murky beginnings of art to the mid 20th century, "sculpture was conceived as an art of solid form, of mass, and its virtues were related to spatial occupancy," recognizing that it had changed irrevocably. And right he was. The intrusion of resins, synthetics, video, computers and other new materials and technologies, which previously would have been considered too fragile or pliant, tenuous or temporal has done much to disrupt and negate that traditional notion of sculptural form, and create a new mind-set. Concurrently, the role of the spectator became an increasingly important ingredient in a great deal of contemporary art, emphasizing a relationship or interaction between the viewer and a specific work. The participatory art of the 1960s and '70s completed the process of transformation from the kinetic works of modernism to the conceptually complex, interactive creations of postmodernism.

These two, entwined trends of the post-war era are really what Boise Art Museum's current exhibit, Thin Skin: The Fickle Nature of Bubbles, Spheres, and Inflatable Structures is all about. As the title indicates, the focus is on art in which air or the breath is a central component; a world of impermanence, randomness and mediation. In the process, the show looks at ways the expanded vocabulary of sculpture has weaned us, the viewers, off of the concrete and opened our eyes to the ephemeral. It is a subject of considerable consequence given the ever-shifting definitions of art, but, curiously, Thin Skin does not have the impact it should. For all the talk in the catalog of making "connections" between the works and the viewer, the show has a forced and fragmentary feel to it that inhibits its ability to realize its intentions. While there are impressive individual works here to appreciate, the promised "continuous osmotic exchange" between viewer and artwork proves, for the most part, elusive. Thin Skin's premise is provocative and sounds good, but the product is, well, in a word, thin.

The problems with the show are several-fold. It is the stated intention of curators Barbara Clausen and Carin Kuoni to bring together works that are both literally and metaphorically "thin-skinned," creating a "mediated environment" that will cultivate "a new spatial sensibility ... that finds its artistic expression in installations involving bubbles, balloons, or translucent, cocoonlike environments." But as a visual art experience it is inconsistent, at times lethargic, and doesn't quite gel. This is not really the fault of BAM. It is a combination of weaknesses in some individual installations, a tendency on the part of Clausen and Kuoni to over-curate the show, and the fact that the original exhibit has been, ahem, thinned-out by the organization touring it, Independent Curators International (ICI). A review of the catalog reveals that in several instances only parts of installations arrived in Boise or substitutions were made, while in the case of one artist, the talented Pipilotti Rist, her work did not make it at all. (Given that the bubble is the central metaphor of the show, the absence of Rist's sculpture Nothing disgorging giant, soapy bubbles is a significant one.) Other pieces comprising photographs, written records or relics documenting past events or performances by artists working with balloons, are little more than historical filler. These questionable curatorial decisions on the part of ICI probably sapped the exhibit of a good part of its original vigor.

There is a considerable amount of video art in Thin Skin, which is the stronger part of the show, although a better job could have been done connecting it to the general theme, and pitching it to the public. The publicity for the exhibit stressed the balloons and other inflatables over the more reflective component. Predictably, the Idaho Statesman's coverage of the exhibit billed it as essentially an amusement park with party favors provided. Consequently, during spring break chaos reigned with herds of young children having pillow fights with Andy Warhol's helium/air filled floatables and stressed-out moms trying to keep them in check, making it pretty tough to consider, let alone hear anything. The guards had their hands full.

Unfortunately, this kind of media hype does the public a disservice, in large because of the confusion it creates. You can't encourage youngsters to play with work in one space and forbid them to touch anything in the next. The truth of the matter is that much of the work is not necessarily for kids, and with the family in tow parents are not going to be in a position to contemplate something they all have to sit quietly for. It was my observation that it was difficult under the circumstances for visitors to sit through an entire video, short as these pieces are.

On a positive note, Thin Skin is a rare opportunity to experience international contemporary art in the flesh. Over twenty artists from around the world and back in time are represented, which gives us a sense of the universal appeal of this idea of using mutable materials in sculpture. Serving as both an opening curtain and foyer to the show within is Lee Boroson's larger-than-life-size Slurry, an inflatable nylon structure comprised of floor-length blue tubes hanging suspended from above and intended to respond to a steady flow of air. Visitors are invited to enter and interact with the work. Translucent, the piece has an organic, aquatic feel to it, like an enormous jellyfish floating at sea. Unfortunately, despite the use of electric blowers the inflated tubes just hang there becalmed, which subtracts from the desired effect. A little more air-induced sway would give the piece some life. Ah, the perversity of inanimate objects.

Upon exiting Boroson's piece d'entrée we find ourselves in the midst of a two-channel soundless video installation entitled Nothing But Space by Danish artist Ann Lislegaard. This is the most effective use of video in the exhibit. Rather than sealing it off in another room, it sits openly between Boroson's invertebrate structure and Andy Warhol's Silver Clouds, an adjacent area full of untethered, inflated, oversized pillows, and it is a good fit. On two screens facing each other from opposing walls is video footage shot in Lislegaard's studio showing the space and people moving through it as reflected on a sheet of Mylar. Emerging and disappearing figures and objects in the room produce distorted, hallucinatory effects, which are fascinating and queasy-feeling at the same time. The randomness of the comings and goings of images in the video echoes that of Warhol's Clouds, and vice versa, while the figures popping out of walls in Lislegaard's studio evoke our own emergence from Slurry. In addition, the metallic Mylar also ties the imagery to Warhol's aluminum-laminated forms. If you are able to take in these three installations together in silence, as was intended, you will come closest to experiencing the groundlessness, the absence of solidity and permanence, the curators had hoped to achieve throughout.

The other installations in this part of the show have mixed success. Israeli artist Miri Segal's clever and ambiguous video, e.g., with its perceptual sleights of hand and a playful illusionism that encourages the viewer's participation then abruptly withdraws the invitation, is fun if cramped and hard to see (the tight, dark booth with the woman behind glass feels slightly illicit.) Sutee Kunavichayanont of Thailand compels us to literally breathe life into two figures in the meditation position that make up his Siamese Breath (Twins). Of course, as soon as we stop blowing air in, the figures start to deflate, a frustrating consequence that metaphorically mirrors (we are told) the cycle of cultural depletion and monetary inflation accompanying Thailand's dive into a Western-style market economy. Although simple and spare, it is a work of political, spiritual and cultural dimensions.

On the other hand, Laura Bruce's Alexander at Sea is rather one-dimensional. A computer-generated, two-panel piece, each with a lilac-and-gray color field sporting a single grandfatherly figure supposedly floating in virtual space, it frankly left me feeling a bit at sea too. In the catalog, the wall panels are part of an installation that includes sculptural elements on the floor below them suggesting a series of waves, thereby putting the panel images in some sort of context, but only the panels made it to Boise. I sense that even complete, the piece is not very compelling. The curators' long-winded description propounds a plethora of readings to choose from, so take your pick.

Similarly have we been short-changed in respect to the suggestive art of Swedish photographer Annika von Hausswolff, which has basically been gutted by our friends at ICI to the extent that only two of the seven C-prints in this serial piece are on view. The tableaux in her Attempting to Deal with Time and Space depict a woman in the process of blowing up an enormous balloon which covers her torso and face. Although the literature suggests the expanding misshapen inflatable looks like bubble gum, it is clearly a balloon material. Wearing only jeans, the woman clutches and squeezes the balloon against her body in a way that, to me, has erotic overtones as she grapples with the swelling form. Had all seven of these color prints been available perhaps we could more clearly ascertain the issues of sexuality and power which are merely hinted at in this fragment.

There are several other freestanding, non-video installations that deserve mention and which have a 1960s ambience to them. Ernesto Neto's Globulocell, a sci-fi looking, biomorphic structure made from stretched Lycra tulle filled with Styrofoam pellets, seems to celebrate the Age of Synthetics, when America was gaga over such wonders as nylon and plastics. Imposing in a playful way, it has a sensual and soft tactility, and an airy three-dimensionality. Neto is clearly influenced by Lygia Clark of Brazil's Neo-Concrete movement thirty years ago who used nets and webbing to great effect. Dorothee Golz's Hollow World III, stranded in BAM's atrium, is like a time capsule from the same period with its dated faux-futuristic loveseat and TV screen combo, set inside an inflated, clear plastic bubble (a popular '60s design motif) sustained by its umbilical-cord air source. The robotic, sanitized interior is amusing but also a bit ominous, suggesting the myopia that comes from a closeted life. And Olafur Eliasson, a Danish artist working in Berlin, is represented by his untitled installation harnessing the ethereal, reflective characteristics of dripping water and physical presence of light to produce shimmering patterns of concentric circles on the wall. His post-minimalist phenomenology harks back to the aesthetics of Earth Art, Robert Irwin and James Turrell.

Performance, both past and present, is an element of much of the work on view, and put to use most effectively in the videos. A series of five short videos by four artists, linked by a common focus on interactions with bubbles, balloons or (conversely) airless environs, offers a range of commentary on the fickle (or perverse) nature of their subjects. In Blow Up #1 by Marit Folstad of Norway, the artist embarks on a breathy 13-minute encounter with a large red balloon in what is the most erotic G-rated video I've ever seen. Folstad gradually blocks out our view of her as her blowing fills the screen with the ever-expanding balloon, as if painting with her breath. As the balloon material expands it becomes increasingly translucent, enabling us to see her silhouette behind it, struggling to keep it under control with her hands, her bare shoulders rising and falling as the effort becomes more labored and guttural. Then the blowing suddenly stops as Folstad ever so slowly lets the air escape, finally revealing herself again, flushed and spent, her mouth and chin dripping with saliva. It's the first of the video shorts and a hard act to follow.

Quieter but just as intriguing is Judith Albert's meditation on functioning underwater in the absence of air and gravity. In Living Room, Albert nonchalantly sets up house at the bottom of a pool, laying out a rug and pillows, trying to make herself comfortable under impossible conditions. The empathy she inspires in the viewer intensifies our involvement with the imagery. And as if warning us to think twice about what we put in our mouths, Austrian cum New Yorker Carola Dertnig's video, Out of the Loop, contemplates contact with a pool of bubble gum melting on an urban sidewalk on a hot, summer day with lots of foot traffic.

In another gallery, two other video installations compete for our attention. Powers of Ten by the design/architectural team of Ray and Charles Eames is more a science project than a work of art, cleverly dovetailing astronomy, human biology and physics, but it does force one to contemplate the fragility and loneliness of this bubble we inhabit in space. More engaging on an art level is the video installation by Turkish artist Haluk Akakce, who now lives and works in London and New York. Akakce is a painter as well as a video artist as evidenced by his The Measure of All Things, which combines live-action with computer animation. His strange blend of information-age technology and allegory betrays an appreciation for pre-modern culture while being firmly situated in the digital present. The crooning soundtrack, off-putting at first then becoming inexplicably appropriate, adds a bit of nostalgia to Akakce's surreal, utopian vision. Nevertheless, the piece's anonymous, messianic incantations ("I promise you all things," "believe," "the future waits for you") are chilling. It is worth multiple viewings.

A final, historical note. As Sir Herbert's comments acknowledge, by 1964 sculpture was already in the midst of a major transformation along the lines suggested by this show. The statement by curator Kuoni in her catalog essay that inflatable, malleable, soft structures "have been popping up in contemporary art over the last few years" is misleading, suggesting a new phenomenon rather than one going back 40 years. Actually the curators confirm its longevity in the work of Andy Warhol, Piero Manzoni and James Lee Byars. Though not in the show, Lygia Clark's unstable, interactive sculptures with their playful, erotic elements are central to understanding the art of the '60s and '70s, and much of what we see here. Another pioneer of this aesthetic was, of course, Claes Oldenburg, whose life-size "soft sculptures" of fabric, paper and pliable vinyl established him as one of the great innovators of the Pop Art era. Always confrontational, his soft-edge fabrications were purposely not inflated but left limp as if the life had been sucked out, emphasizing, in his way, the temporary and perverse nature of his materials and his art. The absence of even a mention of Oldenburg in this exhibit is puzzling, as his spirit is certainly present. His influence has persisted right up to today in the work of Jeff Koons and others. LA artist Paul McCarthy's entry in the current Whitney Biennial is a huge pink, inflated balloon sculpture occupying the roof of the Whitney Museum in New York. It stands, like Thin Skin, as a testimonial to Oldenburg's legacy.