Light and space explorers
By Philip Kennicott
Sunday, Mar. 4, 2012
Resistance is futile. The five large-scale installation pieces in the Hirshhorn's "Suprasensorial" exhibition, devoted to immersive works by Latin American artists, aim to overwhelm the viewer by breaking down the usual conventions of how we relate to art.
Carlos Cruz-Diez's "Chromosaturation" is a room drenched in an almost pulsating richness of colored light. Jesus Rafael Soto's "Blue Penetrable BBL" allows viewers to wander through its dangling forest of nylon string. "Cosmococa," an installation by Helio Oiticica and Neville D'Almeida invites visitors to lie down on blue mattresses and use an emery board while watching slides projected on white walls.
The artists, many of them anticipating or independently working with ideas explored by the Light and Space movement in California during the 1960s and '70s, sought to open up the experience of art. Work that engaged audiences directly, even physically, that wasn't dependent on conventions of connoisseurship and knowledge, was seen as more democratic. "Suprasensorial" art could take one into new sensory realms, or beyond the ordinary senses, in a way that 19th-century paintings hanging on walls perhaps could not.
At least, that was the idea. The contemporary viewer, well schooled in installation art, will encounter a more complex set of psychological reactions. It isn't easy, at first, to walk into Soto's field of blue chord, neatly hung from a large metal frame. The first impulse is: Don't touch the art. The second impulse is: This is art that needs touching. So you wander in, and there's a pleasing set of sensations, including a dynamic echo of your motion in the reaction of the blue strings, and a static echo as those same pieces of nylon tangle up in small clumps.
But like audience participation in the theater, there's an element of compulsion here, too. You realize that all those "don't touch the art" signs in a conventional museum space also free you to have a distanced, emotionally regulated relationship to the sculpture and painting. In "Suprasensorial," you feel slightly uncool, unworthy of the experience, if you don't do as invited or required and plunge into the work. (An earlier version of this show, which was organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, included a swimming pool open to visitors.)
This is the paradox of so much art (and politics, too) that is supposedly about freedom, or a more progressive relation to the work. The idea that the audience "activates" or "completes" the work forces the audience into a participation that often feels mandatory. The blue mattresses in the installation piece by Oiticica and D'Almeida are especially complicated. If you don't lie down on them, you haven't experienced the piece. But think of the metaphor "to lay down in front of," with its suggestion of being supinely submissive to something.
The compensation for participation is ample. The light-drenched rooms of Cruz-Diez's "Chromosaturation" (a 1965 piece refabricated in 2010) make you feel a bit like you're wandering around inside a rainbow, exploring intangible spaces where basic elements of the spectrum bleed into one another. Once you overcome your resistance to being horizontal in public, Oiticica and D'Almeida's mattresses are surprisingly comfortable and liberating.
The squiggles of light reflected off of hanging metal plates in Julio Le Parc's "Light in Movement" are endlessly hypnotic, like watching the glint of sun on water. And Lucio Fontana's "Neon Structure for the IX Triennial of Milan" (a 1951 work refabricated in 2010) is perhaps the best piece in the show, a squiggle of white neon that looks like a three-dimensional realization of photographer Harry Callahan's roughly contemporaneous flashlight-in-the-dark images.
But it's always worth being suspicious of anything that attempts to bypass the intellect through hyper-sensual appeal. "Suprasensorial" is a word that might as easily describe a totalitarian pageant as a work of art that aims to transcend ordinary aesthetic impact. In their attempt to express the aesthetic experience through large-scale installations, several of the artists hint at the experience's darker side. The color-saturated rooms of Cruz-Diez also feel terrifyingly dystopian and institutional, like an operating theater or an Orwellian waiting room. The nylon dangling bits in Soto's work are relentlessly organized in a grid, and one can imagine that grid extending to infinity, in a nightmarish version of some acid-trip rainforest. And the spotlights focused on a cluster of metal reflecting squares in Le Parc's "Light in Movement" recall the heavy-handed theatrics of baroque religious art.
In the end, manipulation is manipulation, and these works are as much about pummeling viewers as they are about freeing them from the ordinary confines of the museum experience. The last irony then, is the presence of this show at the Hirshhorn. It's a good show, an interesting one, and a fun one. But it takes a museum to recreate and house works of this scale. This art, which was meant to break free of conventional ideologies of aesthetic experience, requires old-fashioned institutional support to survive and reach an audience.