The most attention-worthy artworks at the American University Museum are four pieces that do their best to hide. Brought together by curator Danielle O’Steen under the exhibition title “Brink and Boundary,” these spotlight-shy installations lurk in corners never meant to be used as exhibition space: in an emergency stairwell and an elevator; along a passage that runs from the gift shop to the restrooms; and wrapped around the perimeter of the building.
Only one work has any kind of visual presence at all, yet you’d probably miss it if you weren’t looking for it. As you step into the museum’s elevator, glance up. There, on the ceiling, is a photograph of an airplane flying overhead.
Called “Sky,” the work by Hasan Elahi does two seemingly contradictory things. First, it opens up a normally claustrophobic space. For this installation, the overhead lights — which shine through Elahi’s semi-translucent paper, turning it into a lightbox — have been cranked up a bit. That additional brightness creates an illusion of space, in the same way that painting your living room ceiling white does.
On the other hand, it also instills a mild sense of paranoia. Ever since 9/11, the sight of an overhead aircraft — particularly one as close as this one appears to be — has become symbolically fraught. What’s more, we Washingtonians aren’t supposed to see planes overhead at all — not within the District’s restricted airspace. Suddenly, Elahi’s friendly skies don’t seem so friendly after all.
Alberto Gaitán’s untitled sound piece takes similar advantage of a transitional space. Installed inside the museum’s three-story emergency stairwell, Gaitán’s work at first sounds as if you’ve set off an alarm. From four hidden speakers comes a chorus of insistent, high-pitched electronic wails; a fifth hums a bass counterpoint. As you pass through the space, the sound waves compete with each other — along with the stairwell’s acoustically unforgiving architecture — creating what the artist calls “dark shadows”: unexpected (and unexpectedly lovely) silences, where the sound suddenly drops out almost altogether.
In a sense, Gaitán is playing the stairwell like a giant echo chamber. But as unmodulated as this computer-controlled composition may seem, its tones do change, based on information that a WiFi sensor picks up from your cellphone as you walk through. (Called “sniffing,” the surveillance technique is used by some retailers to track the behavior of customers in their stores.)
Is this the tiniest bit creepy? Sure, but also kind of cool. Even though Gaitán swears he isn’t collecting any personal information, this intrusive collaboration — witting or otherwise — turns you into both player and the thing played. It’s a reminder of the spy in your back pocket. (If you don’t happen to have a cellphone, the stairwell still “sings,” but without knowing you’re there.)
By contrast, Adam Good’s installation is refreshingly low-tech. Stuck to a long glass wall just across from the museum snack bar is a series of hundreds of sticky notes, each containing a single word. The text comes from the writings of conceptual artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres (1957-1996), as well as writings about him. Like someone making refrigerator-magnet poetry, Good has rearranged the words, sometimes creating self-indulgent gibberish, and sometimes sense.
By his own admission, Good is a little obsessed with Gonzalez-Torres. The sky blue of the sticky notes, for instance, matches, almost exactly, the color used by the late artist for a work called “Loverboy,” in which visitors were invited to help themselves to a sheet of blank blue paper from a continually replenished stack. Unfortunately, that allusion to Gonzalez-Torres, whose work typically involved the participation of the viewer, only underscores the fact that here, you’re meant to look but not touch.
Halsey Burgund’s “Hotel Dreamy,” on the other hand, is more interactive, turning the museum into an inn where you can eavesdrop on other people’s dreams.
It works like an Acoustiguide museum tour: After downloading the free smartphone app — iPhone only, no Android — wander outside to the grounds, where the artist has “planted” a series of recordings you can access on your device. The audio — which ranges from actual dream recollections to scientific musings about the function of the subconscious mind — is GPS-device-activated, so the soundtrack changes depending on the route you take. You can also upload your own dreams, or filter the stories you hear by theme.
Listening with earbuds, which quiet the noise of the real world, it’s a trippy experience, allowing you to enter a landscape that’s more psychological than physical.
In a sense, that’s what each of these artists is trying to do: to lead you outside the walled formal garden of art, where you might find meaning — and even beauty — in the weeds and wildflowers.
Hasan Elahi’s “Sky” has an ominous subtext: You are being followed. That message is part of a larger project that the Bangladeshi-born American artist began after he was mistakenly placed on a terrorist watch list more than 10 years ago by the U.S. government. Rather than fight this newfound scrutiny, Elahi, a frequent flier, decided to give the feds exactly what they wanted, creating a Web site, trackingtransience.net, that not only documents where he’s traveled — and what he ate while there — but also continually records his current whereabouts with a flashing red arrow, in real time, via a GPS-enabled device.
Elahi, who calls himself a “privacy artist,” has deliberately made it difficult to navigate through the mountain of information on his site. As he wrote in a 2011 New York Times essay, “Despite the barrage of information about me that is publicly available, I live a surprisingly private and anonymous life.”
— Michael O'Sullivan