Institute for Contemporary Art, Boston

February 18, 2010

in Museums and Galleries, Poetry, Readings

I went initially to hear a poetry reading at the ICA but wound up going through the new show and the standing collection on exhibit.

Roni Horn
The main exhibit, just about to open, is an extensive one of works by Roni Horn. It is difficult to summarize the import, or effect, of her works, but repetition and space seem to figure into them pervasively.

You Are the Weather (1994-1996)is a room full of repetitive portraits of a young woman who appears to have just got out of the water. There is a bit of variation in the poses and the developing process, so all the pictures are not identical. In one sense, this exhibit is a tribute to rapid action photographic technology. The poop sheet instructs us to slow down as we take in this array of images, but my own inclination was to speed up. A little more variation might have induced me to pause.

bird (1998-2008) shows a lot of images of the backs of birds’ heads. Following on the previous exhibit of many images of the same face, it seems literally to be the flip side with an ornithological twist. It was kind of fun imagining these bird head backs as the back of human hairdos, and I was struck by how neat these hairdos – or featherdos – were. (Did Horn, or her makeup crew, comb their feathers before she shot them?) I didn’t quite understand why the piece took 10 years to complete, but it was interesting to think of Horn dwelling on the backs of bird heads for that amount of time.

This Is Me, This is You (1998-200) show two large matrices of varied pictures of Horn’s young niece who happens to look a lot like my young niece – very cute, with very blue eyes. While in the gallery, I heard a museum curator talking about identity and time and how these became focal in the current work. She sounded a bit like a PR person for Horn, but, despite the promotional level of the discourse, I was struck that here, all of sudden, philosophy had become fashionable.

White Dickinson (2006-2007). Horn likes to extract lines from Emily Dickinson poems and emblazon them on long metal posts and lean them against the wall. I kind of liked some of the shorter ones – Faith Is Doubt.

Bluff Life (1982) shows little technically simple drawings in crayons and watercolors on note cards, things the niece might have done.

Asphere X (1988/2001). This is a small forged stainless steel ball that sits in the middle of the floor. A guard was posted there to make sure that none of us kicked it. Again, I was curious to think what artistic process unfolded during the thirteen years of this work’s gestation.

Were (2004) represents somewhat interesting geometrical inventions – like strange architectural drawings on a scribble sheet, as though someone was trying to tighten up some Cy Twombly canvases. Some of these have an odd daring grace. As IX (1987) and Through (2007) are more densely improvised studies along the same lines.

There was a room with a lot of stuff about Iceland, where Horn seems to have spent some time.

Pooling Waters (1990) is a curious drawing, with the name Eudora Welty written over and over with some connecting figurations.

Still Water (1999) shows a photo of a swirl of ocean that is footnoted numerically and which has textual pieces associated with the numbers at the bottom of the photo. I thought this was pretty cool and an interesting diversion, but then I saw that the room was filled with 15 or 20 more of the same. Among them, the text is somewhat varied, and the images of the water are a little different, but the basic format of all the pieces is basically identical.

Opposite of White (2006) shows two big glass cast cylinders. Horn also likes to do big cast glass cubes, one of which was in the entry lobby downstairs.

Ant Farm (1974-2007) has some live ants in a large ant farm. One can only commend Horn on her long dedication to these ants.

Untitled (Aretha) (2002-2004) is a big red version of a glass cube.

Poetry Reading

Gail Mazur, Joyce Peseroff, David Rivard, Lloyd Schwartz, Rosanna Warren
Associated with the opening of the Roni Horn exhibit was a poetry reading by some of Boston’s noted poets. The putative reason for doing this is that Roni Horn likes to put lines from Emily Dickinson on large metal rectangles and lean them against the wall, so the organizers of the reading asked these four poets to pick out a few Emily Dickinson poems to read and then each to read an original poem. It was interesting to hear each of the poets read Dickinson’s work. They all obviously had heartfelt relations to many of the poems and read them with feeling and reverence.

Gail Mazur presented a wonderful oriignal poem called Shipwreck: Winter, Wellfleet, 2008 about an old nineteenth century vessel washed up on an ocean beach in Wellfleet.

I believe it began like this:
It’s another secret the ocean burped up.

and ended like this:
Alive, kicking even when you know you’re going down.

Evocative and affecting.

Joyce Peseroff read a poignant, funny and interesting poem called Two Ways to Play Shylock about the varied interpretations offered on the role by David Suchet (of Monsieur Poirot fame) and Patrick Stewart (of Star Trek fame).

David Rivard read a poem called 1968 which, unfortunately, I don’t remember much about.

Lloyd Schwartz read an original sestina – which he claimed as the shortest sestina ever written – with a funny array of single words that made very good funny and dramatic sense in his own oral rendition, but which, as a written poem, must be difficult to figure out.

Rosanna Warren read two affecting poems – Aubade and Aftermath, which was an elegy for a friend who had died of cancer.

Permanent Collection
After the reading, I dipped into the permanent collection.

Roni Horn’s Key and Cue, No 288 (1994/2003) greeted me and I kind of liked its brief eloquence when it was off on its own. It is a rectangular metal post with Emily Dickinson’s line I’m Nobody! Who Are You? on it, and its brevity and wit seemed to fit well in the gallery.

Gerard Byrne’s One Year, Six Months and Three Weeks Ago (2008) is a large photo showing a magazine rack, with less detail and comprehensiveness than works by Andreas Gursky, but with some of the same expansive interest and flair.

Cindy Sherman is always fun. She got her act down a long time ago and she always comes up with inventive gags. Her Untitled (Lucy) (1975/2001) – a Lucille Ball getup – is great

Tara Donovan does interesting stuff. Her show at the ICA featuring works made from conventional household items recently was a big hit. The ICA retains two of her pieces on display. Untitled (Pins) (2003) is very cool. It’s a cube of pins that was put together on a template and then removed from the template. There’s a real tension and curiosity to how the whole thing holds together and it’s stimulating to look at. Nebulous (2008) is a floor full of cellulose tape swirls that make a kind of relief map. It’s a less dramatic work, but still provides an enigmatic terrestrial transformation of this domestic material.

Rineke Dijkstra’s Two Portraits of Evgenya (2002) is a gripping photo study of a young woman just before and months after she became an Israeli soldier. It is subtle, penetrating and evocative, and speaks volumes about the psychological transformations involved.

Kryzysztof Wodiczo’s Out of Here: The Veterans Project simulates, in a large room, something like the inside of a prison in Iraq during the war. It is affecting in its own way, though I was not drawn to stay for very long. Nor was I sure why the room needed to be so large.

Museum Design
It is kind of striking that, of the four floors in the building, the exhibits only get shown on one of them. It seems like an odd choice, even though there is a theatre and labs and various things on the other floors. The building does offer a beautiful vista of Boston Harbor, but I did wonder about the economy of space. I thought of the Frank Gehry design for the Experience Music Project in Seattle and considered how interesting a building it is but wondered at its efficiency as a museum. A good friend who is a museum director on the West Coast, on seeing that building, wondered the same thing.

The Missing Collection
After visiting the MFA and ICA back to back, I was struck that Boston does not have a Museum of Modern Art, and lamented that gap. The MFA offers some modern art, but the ICA really offers only the very latest in contemporary art. The MOMAs in NY and SF seem to cover both a lot of modern art history and the contemporary world as well, giving a feeling of comprehensiveness. I’m not sure exactly what the MFA has in mind re modern art in its new wings, but it does seem that somewhere, sometime in Boston, a home for the range of works we call modern might find a hub and a home.

In the Gift Shop
I wound up watching ten or fifteen minutes of a video featuring Roni Horn who, though a middle-aged woman, looks like a bookish teenage boy with a touch of Woody Allen thrown in. I noted the great earnestness with which she discussed her work and it brought to mind the long film featuring Sol LeWitt that I watched at Mass MOCA last summer. LeWitt conveys a kind of deliberateness that is touched by a bit of irony. He almost seems like the featured character – Chance – in Jerzy Koznski’s Being There, happy to have arrived, but not quite sure how he got there. Horn, quite differently, seems to exhibit confidence and resolve, rather than curiosity, towards the evolution of professional destiny. I kept expecting her to crack a wry smile to indicate something of the curiosity of her success, but it never happened. This brought to mind recollections of Christo discussing his determination to realize the Gates project in Central Park thirty years before it happened. Such incredible drive makes careers – even minimalist careers – happen. Horn’s greatest work may, in fact, be her volition, of which her pieces are ironic emblems. Like great performers, she never appears to fall out of character, which, in the end, wins over an audience and delivers broad cheers for the artist-emperor, whatever he or she may or may not be wearing.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

MARY April 22, 2010 at 4:16 pm

Thank you for sharing this. Well done and very informative.

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