On any given day, an average person interacts with dozens of machines, objects, structures, and systems whose inner details they understand little to nothing about. Keys open locks, blenders turn solids to liquids, and ceilings position themselves anywhere from eight to 15 feet above our heads and, stubbornly, stay there. Human beings are complex creatures inhabiting an increasingly complex world; as a species, our needs and desires have long since extended beyond the possibilities of our physical bodies, and our ingenuity has filled in those considerable gaps with technology and systems that now mediate absolutely everything we do. Our confidence in the machines we create is both implied by and responsible for our ignorance of their finer parts. Culturally, our collective faith lies in our industry before it lies anywhere else.
The Way Things Work, an exhibition curated by Didi Dunphy and Megan Kluttz currently on display at the Athens Institute for Contemporary Art (ATHICA), examines several systems of contemporary life through the work of 11 artists. Although many of these artists were culled from an open call for entries, the show succeeds in presenting a remarkably focused and nuanced statement.
Situated just north of downtown Athens, ATHICA is housed within a larger structure of repurposed industrial spaces collectively referred to as the Chase Street Warehouses. Approaching the space on foot, I almost completely missed Ernesto Gomez’s Structural Criterion, an elegant four-part study in architectural camouflage positioned at regular intervals around the building’s exterior. Gomez’s wooden buttress-like sculptures rest at 45-degree angles against the wall’s corrugated metal lining, visually mimicking Corten steel. They look like they’re holding the whole place together. These works, however, are not part of the building’s actual load-bearing structure, but they draw direct attention to the invisible elements that are. Gomez’s interventions play with a viewer’s assumptions to engender a moment of discovery. Subtlety, a quality not often paired with large-scale outdoor sculpture, is the works’ strongest asset, making them the perfect introduction for the exhibition itself.
Depicting another form of imagined architecture, Atlanta-based artist Andy Moon Wilson demonstrates a rigorous attention to detail that is at once manic and sublime. With scale ranging between the modest and the intimate, his drawings envisions seven structures assembled from Wilson’s razor-thin lines and delicate ink washes, offset by a gorgeously saturated royal blue. Wilson’s work begs the question of what is possible through architectural innovation with an undeniable charm that is equal parts prankster and virtuoso.
Wilson’s natural counterpart in the show, Detroit-based Cody Vanderkaay, comments on the subject of communication, although his subjects are not so readily apparent. Each drawing in his ongoing series, Telegraph, employs Vanderkaay’s machine-like precision to lull a viewer into a state of meditative intoxication. Drawing, as Vanderkaay undoubtedly understands, is an essential form of human interaction, most often between the artist and an unseen recipient; as with any form of communication, the distance between intention and reality is large. Vanderkaay’s rigid horizons dissolve poetically into a soft pattern of jagged sound waves: an undeniably quiet statement, whose aftershocks reverberate.
Julia Oldham’s performance work sings: Her video documents, none of which run longer than two minutes, benefit heavily from tight editing and an innate sense of sound design. In selections from two bodies of work entitled Spiders and Insects and Timber, Oldham employs the systems of the human body as a means of making known the behaviors and movements of insects. Her short films show the artist moving through a choreographed series of movements, recreating the patterns of insect life in a frenzied, frantic dance. Moving between the natural world and the studio, and alternating props, costumes, and the nude, these films are funny, mesmerizing, and incongruously moving. They are beautiful.
Dovetailing with the playfulness of Oldham’s performance pieces are the video works of Ohio-based Robert Ladislas Derr, who appeared as part of last year’s FLUX 2010 with his walking performance titled Chance. His ongoing work, In Play, depicts a split-screen view of the artist pitted against various art-world luminaries in a heated game of ping-pong. Clearly a trickster, Derr’s piece opens up a dialogue on the not-so-hidden systems of the art world itself, challenging several established artists to go head-to-head with the young buck. Of course, in doing so, these artists become a part of Derr’s work. Although to date the artist has competed in 15 total matches, the ATHICA show features his games against Kate Gilmore, Dan Graham, Michael Snow, and Dennis Oppenheim (who despite being close to the end of his life, can still play a mean game of ping-pong).
At the center of the exhibition are sculptures by Will Pergl and Dan Grayber, who anchor the show through a polished mechanical investigation of machines themselves. Grayber’s CavityMechanism series presents a vision of technology without any intention or need for human interaction — objects assembled and existing discreetly for their own self-sustenance. Exquisitely crafted, Grayber’s spring-loaded contraptions, perched inside various glass containers, are not so much kinetic as performative in their task of mid-air suspension. Everything about these pieces shrieks anticipation, as the rubber-footed rods apply constant pressure to their glass cages (although any anthropomorphizing of the work seems counter to its conceptual grounds).
Pergl’s sprawling Trivialities of Deportment, which occupies half the gallery space and from which the overall exhibition design was smartly drawn, completely dominates ATHICA’s interior through its cunning assembly and division of negative space. The sculpture, which is essentially a three-dimensional drawing lashed to the ceiling and wall supports with ratcheted belts, allows for viewers to walk in, around, and under its various elements — drawing you into its mysterious logic. This is in fact the sixth installment of the sculpture, which continually adjusts to the environment of each exhibition and recreates its own systems to meet any spatial demands. Walking inside the piece is vaguely unsettling; it appears as if its connections may come unhinged at any moment — just as any system of logic can and, inevitably, will.
The exhibition, The Way Things Work, is on view at ATHICA through May 29, 2011. A gallery walk and discussion with curators Didi Dunphy and Megan Kluttz is scheduled for Thursday, April 28, 2011, at 7PM.