Black Box: Magnus Wallin

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Editorial Review

Wallin: Projecting Our Own Fears

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 29, 2006; Page WE22

What do artists dream of when they sleep? If Magnus Wallin is any indication, the answer is pretty much the same as the rest of us: claustrophobic tunnels, giant snakes and running in place without getting anywhere.

Reportedly inspired by his own dreams, two short computer animations by the contemporary Swedish artist are on continuous view in the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden's Black Box Theater. As the parents of a young child concluded upon wandering into the space, the videos might be a tad scary for some audiences. Truth be told, they are a little disturbing even for grown-ups.

"Anatomic Flop" (2003) depicts an idealized running track floating against the backdrop of a stormy sky. Again and again, eight droidlike athletes -- they resemble the metallic-skinned machines in "I, Robot" -- sprint toward the viewer like mice in a maze, only to be repeatedly blasted backward by some unseen force. This is eventually revealed to be a giant winged creature, part bird (or dark angel?), part hourglass, whose flapping blows the runners violently back to the starting block every time, where they begin again the same ritual with stoic resignation.

"Exercise Parade" (2001) presents a similar scenario of actors reluctantly engaged in a physical contest. This time, it's a game of leapfrog down a long, fluorescent-lighted hallway, involving, on the one hand, a human skeleton and, on the other, its corresponding musculature. It's as if the participants stepped off the pages of an anatomy chart; the "muscle man" even comes with his own med-school labels and arrows sticking out of his skinless flesh like acupuncture needles. Every so often, a large silvery boulder rolls down the corridor, causing our bony friend, who whimpers in terror, to flatten himself against the wall, along with his meathead partner. As soon as the danger has passed, the two resume their sport. At some point, a massive serpent comes slithering down the passageway.

Although he gives his work the high-tech sheen of a video game, Wallin traces the roots of his imagery to such historical examinations of the human body as photographer Eadweard Muybridge's 19th-century motion studies and Andreas Vesalius's 1543 anatomy textbook "De Humani Corporis Fabrica." Wallin's subject matter, however, appears to be not the mechanics of life, but its core meaning. Why do we go on, when it seems we never get anywhere and death lurks around every corner?

"Exercise Parade" is a two-channel video installation that is normally projected onto opposite walls of a room. This gives the effect that its flesh-and-bones protagonists are leapfrogging right over viewers' heads as they proceed from one end of the corridor to the other. At the Hirshhorn, the two screens are side by side, yet our identification with the characters is inescapable. Wallin succeeds in making his point, that his nightmares are ours.

Sitting in the audience of a Magnus Wallin film is like walking into one of your own - or someone else's - strangest dreams. Highly symbolic and highly creepy, two of the Swedish artist's films will be playing continuously at the Hirshhorn Museum's Black Box theater beginning on Friday.

The computer-animated pieces "Anatomic Flop" (2003) and "Exercise Parade" (2001) last only about three minutes each, but each leaves a lasting impression with its haunting imagery and stark use of light and sound.

Each film creates a distinct and unsettling virtual world. "Anatomic Flop" takes place on a celestial racetrack with athletes running down the track and out of the frame before being violently flung back to the starting line by a mostly invisible force. "Exercise Parade" takes place in a creepy, industrial-looking hallway and centers on a mysterious figure who dodges a giant glowing orb that barrels towards him.

Wallin tends to focus on the human body, a mix of the classical ideal of physical beauty with futuristic humanoid forms.

The Hirshhorn show is Wallin's first major museum exhibition in the United States, although he has shown throughout Europe. The Malmo, Sweden-based artist gained widespread fame through his exhibition at the 2001 Istanbul Biennale.

His early work used performance and installation techniques, although he has moved into the realm of film by collaborating with a team of animators.

--Dan Miller (Express, Dec. 14, 2006)