Surprises at the MoMA

I visited the MoMA yesterday, on the last day of The Original Copy: The Photography of Sculpture, 1839 to Today. Working with studio-based compositions of sculptures and sculptural arrangements, Brancusi’s suite of beautiful b/w photos featured glints of light, while Jan de Cock [see his innovative website]‘s Studio Repromotion series were unaffected, curious color 4x6s. Cyprien Gaillard‘s Analogous Geographies (a series of groups of sixteen random Polaroids, all shot at 45 degree angles, and arranged to create composite landscapes) had a neat presentation (the photos were lain on a concave matboard-like surface in deep frames set at a low angle). Robin Rhode‘s Stone Flags (in which the illusion of flag-waving is carried out in a kind of live-action stop-motion hybrid, using real stones and a real figure) captured the heavy burden of statehood on personal identity. I was also happy to be introduced to Brassaï‘s Involuntary Sculptures, large b/w macro shots of materials like balls of dust or smeared toothpaste. The questioning of the nature of sculpture, and the embrace of chance, seems very contemporary. The cherry on the cake, though, was one of Duchamp’s valises of miniatures of his sculptures and paintings.

Still, while I toured other shows around the museum, I was most affected and impressed by three videos. This is a rarity for me. I haven’t got anything against video, it’s just that I don’t often have the patience it takes to watch enough videos to see the great ones. In this case, all three were very powerful, shared some similarities, yet are completely different.

Glenn Ligon‘s The Death of Tom (2008) is elegiac. It’s impressive because it seems to convey no content, yet ample clues point the observant viewer towards a very specific historical and cultural moment. [It’s so good I don’t want to spoil it for you, so I’ll add a SPOILER ALERT here. Skip to the next graph if you don’t want to know.] The short film consists of unintelligible streaks of white light; a hazy, nebulous, shifting blur creates sort of a monochromatic, animated Rothko. It’s unclear what you’re looking at, and when, if ever, the video will start. Yet a beautifully-recorded piano accompanies the light; its riffs and rhythms allude to vaudevillian tunes. The composition is nostalgic and playful and yet, interpretive, heavy, burdened and woeful. Being familiar with Ligon’s work, and his interest in race and the representation of Black Americans, I surmised a connection to blackface and the co-mingled feelings of liberation and weight. It’s a very powerful piece that connects strongly to Ligon’s paintings about illegibility and misreadings. Jason Moran, the pianist and composer, provides clues, context and grace in equal measure. It’s on view through May 9, 2011.

In a prime example of the multi-polarity of artists of color and ways of working, unflinching Vietnamese documentarian Dinh Q. Lê and his collaborators present a completely different video that concerns racial and national politics as well. Their giant, three-channel video is at times emotionally heart-wrenching, bombastic, borderline propagandistic, and completely unnerving. The Farmers and The Helicopters (2006) features interviews with a handful of survivors of the Vietnam War and their experiences with helicopters: elderly ladies who were terrorized as children, a militia man who fired on them, and a perplexing, passionate, self-taught mechanic, who, enthralled with helicopters and their utilitarian and humanitarian potentials, built a helicopter from scrap metals with a farmer. Le Van Danh’s and Tran Quoc Hai’s handiwork is on view in the gallery adjacent to the video. It’s massive, white like an angel, and mind-blowing. The Farmers and The Helicopters is on view through January 24, 2011.

The third video I liked was features only color fields, similar to Ligon’s black-and-white-blur, yet is aggressively gripping like Lê’s. Paul Sharit‘s Ray Gun Virus (1966) is a film consisting of rapidly interspersed fields of color, accompanied by a loud, brain-invading mechanical drone. Finding the screening room empty, I proceeded to break all normal viewing protocol: standing in the projection throw, observing the awesome retinal after-images (or colors) that occurred, and generally zoning out. I thought about looking straight into the projection when more visitors came in, and I resumed my normative viewing role. A structuralist filmmaker, Ray Gun Virus was Sharit’s first “flicker” films which aimed to alter consciousness. He succeeded. See a visitor-created YouTube video. Also on view through May 9, 2011.