A Post-Precarious Disquieting

When asked to reflect on the art of the first ten years of the millenium, Hal Foster focused on the precarious: works that created meaning from the uncertain circumstances of their time. The five artistic moments he identifies as exemplary are Robert Gober’s 2005 installation at Matthew Marks Gallery; John Kessler’s The Palace at 4 am at P.S.1; Mark Wallinger’s State Britain, Tate Britain; Isa Genzken’s installation at Sckulptur Projeckte Munster 2007; and Paul Chan’s “The 7 Lights” at the New Museum.  Foster summarizes his notion of this precarious:

“…what I want to underscore in the word is already present in the OED: ‘Precarious: from the Latin precarius, obtained by entreaty, depending on the favor of another, hence uncertain, precarious, from precem, prayer.’ This implies that this state of insecurity is not natural but constructed–a political condition produced by a power on whose favor we depend and which we can only petition. To act out the precarious, then, is not only to evoke its perilous and privative effects but also to intimate how and why they are produced–and thus to to implicate the authority that imposes this antisocial contract of ‘revocable tolerance.'” (“Precarious,” Artforum December 2009)

Although the concept of precariousness Foster reflects on is applicable to a range of historical moments, the definition of the term is so dependent upon time that it is reasonable to assume the works he identifies were most impactful because of the time of their respective existences.

While both the historical and artistic moments of this essay are now over, the Portland Art Museum’s Disquieted seized a similarly poignant point in time to reflect on the precariousness of the 00s from a more distanced point of view.  Upon entering Disquieted, one cannot help but take a moment of silence.  The three lightly illuminated, colossal heads of Jaume Plensa’s installation In the Midst of Dreams appear to silently meditate among a garden of marble stones.  The muted lighting, the shuttered eyes of the figures and the gentle uncanniness of the scene all contribute to an initial inclination to linger with this piece, effectively setting the tone for the movement through the rest of the exhibition.

Jaume Plensa. In the Midst of Dreams. 2009. Installation of polyester resin, fiberglass, stainless steel, marble pebbles, and light. Galerie Lelong, New York. Image from artnet.com

A typical museum experience often creates a sense that one must move quickly and efficiently through the  galleries in order to absorb everything before the museum fatigue sets in and the building closes.  Beginning with Plensa’s heads, however, the pressure to move on and “see it all” was alleviated.   Bill Viola’s The Quintent of the Astonished in the next set of galleries physically slows time for the viewer, appropriating the composition and lighting characteristic of Baroque paintings into to a slow motion action sequence. Simultaneously speaking to the mental and cinematic processes of experiencing reaction, the video leaves the viewer in a state of questioning anticipation, waiting for information and resolution without hope of finding either.

Bill Viola, The Quintet of the Astonished, 2000. Colour video rear projection on screen mounted on wall in dark room. Projected image size: 140 x 240 cm. Bill Viola Studio, Long Beach, CA © Bill Viola.

Jean Tingley’s installation Facility evokes a similar experience of waiting and watching. Tucked in a dark corner at the end of a short hallway, a guard asks visitors to enter the space but to avoid touching “the model.”  Occurring before those about to enter even know what they are about to encounter, this introduction to the piece creates a heightened level of awareness as one proceeds into the dark space. The immediate response is to try to comprehend what can and cannot be done in this room and determine how easily something might be touched or stepped on; after this moment of confusion, our eyes adjust and are met with a small white model of a prison surrounded by a square of light and shadows.  It is only after spending time with the work that the viewer can realize time is, in fact, required for this experience.  Slowly it becomes evident that the shadow of the model building is moving as though there were a dim form of the sun rising and setting.  As Facility fades in and out of the room over the course of about five minutes, it appears simultaneously natural and dream-like, leaving the viewer to observe the cycle mechanically repeating itself.

Towards the end of Disquieted, Shirin Neshat’s Possessed is screened in a room in the center of another gallery, the sounds of the video audible throughout the last several spaces of the exhibition. Like Facility, a sense of repetition surfaces, in this instance through the disjointed sounds of Possessed’s soundtrack. When I walked into the gallery, the screen depicted a woman wandering the walled streets of a desert city alone.  The dramatic sounds and the desperate expression on her face suggest a sense of an undeterminable trauma similar to the perceived drama behind the individuals in Viola’s The Quintet of the Astonished.  Although Neshat’s video has a form of climax as the woman enters a crowded square and causes a set of diverging reactions among the other individuals shown, the piece again ends with a lack of resolve.  As indicated by the title, the woman’s thoughts and actions are not easily deciphered, and yet there is something about her the viewer feels inclined to understand.

Shirin Neshat. Possessed (Production still). 2001. ©Shirin Neshat. Photo by Larry Barns, courtesy Barbara Gladstone Gallery. Image from Art Papers.org

Several weeks prior to my viewing of Disquieted, I read a quotation from the exhibition’s curator Bruce Guenther in Art Daily:

“The experience is post-retinal—you take it with you and it becomes a part of your next conversation. These works provoke feelings that may be lying beneath the surface or below a person’s façade of contentment. The emotional reaction sneaks up on you, perhaps even moving you from laughter to tears.”

I considered Guenther’s suggestion as I entered and as I exited the show.  I then continued coming back to it every time I reflected on this exhibition for the past two weeks as I worked to conceptualize this posting and agreed that his assessment could not be more true. While many works in Disquieted relate to the temporal concepts Hal Foster identified as part of precariousness, the works at PAM had their own command over time and reflection that is more uniquely suited for the present moment. The changes in leadership and attitudes that have arisen in the aftermath of Foster’s precariousness have brought Americans to our current state of transition, a period when consideration of the past ten years (and beyond) can potentially be of the most use as we move towards an era anew.