Los Angeles artist Kevin Cooley has created an atmospheric, tweet-activated installation at Laney Contemporary in Savannah that marks the constant slippage of time — time at the speed of sea levels rising and polar caps melting. The indirectly participatory work is engaged every time anyone, anywhere, tweets the hashtags #smokeandmirrors, #climateaction, or #ecofriendly, that real-time Twitter text is projected into a mirrored room filled with a dense fog emitted by visibly low-tech fog machines that hiss continuously in the corners. Each tweet — such as “pipeline spills raw crude,” “eco-housing demanded,” “trees help fight climate change,” “Trump kills NASA’s carbon monitoring,” and “increase of UV radiation in the arctic” — is like a ticking clock, indicating the passage of time as climate concerns mount and we collectively do nothing to stop it.
Smoke & Mirrors found the ideal home at Laney Contemporary, where it is installed in a fully mirrored secondary gallery space, which happens to be a kind of readymade mini-lounge. Built by the original owner as a private space for entertaining in the 1980s, it suggests backroom deals and private parties. The term “smoke & mirrors” seems to be enjoying a higher frequency of usage these days. It suggests the suspicion of being duped on a grand scale. It indicates the creation of active falsehoods unfolding in real time. Like a room without a clear exit, this seemingly infinite, reflective space of fog and climate-action texts dizzies the viewer and suggests that we indeed are all prisoners of our own device.
The sound elements round out the ticking time bomb anxiety conveyed in this clever exhibition. Time is marked succinctly in three parts: the fog machines clunk and clatter spilling their billowy diversions, multiple projectors lull the viewer into a hazy calm with the soft white noise of their low technology hidden in plain sight, and the tinny echoing click-click of texts is registered and imaged all over the room in multiplication. All parts act as a chorus of clocks, seducing and waking, hiding and revealing, like the experience of a lulled normalcy interrupted by climate-based catastrophic ruptures and wake-up calls.
The rolling fog reads as both cover-up and projection surface, hiding and revealing truths as the tweets increase and then decrease in frequency throughout the day. The manmade atmosphere paired with pithy, ephemeral declarations of political resistance acts as a kind of performance without a performer. An idea is posited and then it disappears. An action is needed and then it fades with the distraction of the fog and with the next tweet to replace it. In this sense, Cooley’s installation resonates as a microcosm of ineffective communication. It suggests a world in which words replace actions, complex ideas are reduced to slogans of seeming authority or fleeting recognitions that fade into the fog of daily distractions. As the title of the installation suggests, truth is consciously obfuscated by the next news event or the next declaration. Inescapable in Smoke & Mirrors too is the unstated suggestion that the President’s tweets have initiated a new world order in which “authority” is insubstantial, mirroring at times what is seen on a television screen and then tweeted as a distraction. The installation in this space makes tangible a magic act of smoke and mirrors, hiding and revealing truths and magical thinking respectively.
Along with Smoke & Mirrors, Cooley has six photographs in the gallery. A number of them were taken during last year’s “super bloom” in Southeastern California’s Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, where an especially intense drought followed by an unusually cold winter and much rain resulted in a profusion of wildflowers. In the images, fog settles around packed clusters of fluorescent purple asters or the brightest yellow daisies that seem to fade as unnaturally prematurely as their out-of-control blooming.
Smoke & Mirrors shares the gallery with TRANCE by abstract-conceptual painter Todd Schroeder, a body of work on canvas and newsprint that similarly speaks to the fast-paced production of information, its obfuscations and revelations, as well as how we share and perceive information in distracted, digestible snippets. In this soup of environmental and political anxiety, Cooley leaves viewers grasping for and questioning their understanding of meaning.
“Smoke and Mirrors” is on view at Laney Contemporary in Savannah through June 9.
Lisa Jaye Young is the editor of Ain’t-Bad Magazine and a professor of art history at the Savannah College of Art and Design. She received her PhD in art history from the Graduate Center at the City University of New York in 2008.