Are you tired of hands-off, eyes-only art? Do you enjoy architecture, unexpected juxtapositions, or pirate jokes? It might be time to check out the current set of exhibitions at the Institute for Contemporary Art (ICA), featuring solo shows by Eileen Neff and Jay Heikes, an installation by architecture studio Taalman Koch, and a group show of sound artists called “Ensemble.” A stroll through the galleries takes you on a multi-sensory experience—as captivating for the ears as for the eyes—and highlights excitingly diverse moments in contemporary art.
Consider it a symphony in four movements, if you will.
Movement I: “Ensemble”
Strike up the band! Just don’t be startled by the air raid siren. It will temporarily drown out all other noises and might cause your fingers to move towards your ears (pity the poor security guards), but you can hardly expect to have a show of kinetic sound sculptures without exploring the full range of audible sound. You will find, if you stop to pay attention, that the intervening silences aren’t really silent at all, but filled with the clink of glass, the thump of a mop, and an occasional rattle of garbage bags. Hopefully you’ll go at a time when other visitors participate in the interactive cacophony by pulling creaking levers, ringing glass bells, and wandering through the enormous bamboo wind chime.
It all looks as fantastic as it sounds. Mineko Grimmer’s Bamboo Forest (1995/2007) provides the perfect prelude to the gallery experience, with a series of thick bamboo poles hanging over the doorway that require gallery-goers to push the poles aside and walk through the rustling “forest”. The viewer participation, physicality and creation of sound introduce themes present throughout the gallery. Doug Aitkin’s K-N-O-C-K-O-U-T (2005) combines the smoothly varnished wood of an elegant table with the percussive melody of a marimba. A grand piano gone awry, an interactive dinner table. AND you get to strike it with mallets. The whimsical glass bells of Jim Hodges’ the bells/black (2007) hang from the ceiling, strings dangling just above your head, like a wild instrument from Alice in Wonderland or a troupe of flying bats. The bold color supersedes the material fragility and invites viewers to give it a try. Nearby, the wobbly wooden floor tiles of Staccato (americano) (2004/2007) by Katja Kölle rattle and thump with every step.
Not every piece is interactive. Keep your eyes open for the do-not-touch signs that mark many of the self-propelling kinetic sculptures. Céleste Boursier-Mougenot sets up a plastic swimming pool with a small motor that circulates floating ceramic bowls in Untitled (series #3): 7 (1999). The bowls gently collide with tinkling clinks as the water swishes and swirls. Terry Adkins’ oversized player piano roller Off Minor (2004) produces a non-musical scraping sound as flexible tubes perpetually rub against the playing mechanism. And David Ellis’ Trash Talk (2007) uses hidden devices to rustle and bang his convincingly nonchalant pile of garbage.
Movement II: “Fly Thru” by Taalman Koch
Enter the silent portion. The current installment of ICA’s ever-inventive ramp projects (making use of the sloped walkway between the first and second floors), features the life-size architectural renderings of studio Taalman Koch. Inside becomes outside becomes inside again in the lattice of perspectival line drawings and vibrantly colored floral motifs. Based on a two-dimensional representation of a glass house, the drawings situate the existing architecture of the ramp within a new contextual possibility. Sol LeWitt’s wall drawings meet Escher’s skewed perspective and Matisse’s love of pattern.
Movement III: Jay Heikes
Watch out for the punch line. With all of the hyperbole and comic tension of a good joke, Jay Heikes presents the latest in a series of installations based on a joke about a parrot and pirate. You won’t see specific representations of the joke itself, but you will sense the exaggerated absurdity and developing suspense characteristic of such humor. In rules of attraction, a large Looney-Toons-like weight hangs inches above a hunk of cheese, daring a mischievous rat/mouse/human hand to reach for it. It brings up futility, danger, and the disturbing suspicion that a falling anvil might be good for a laugh. 6:30 today, tomorrow, and the day after that, an enormous non-functional cuckoo clock complete with pinecone weights, rests with flaccid hands at a dismal hour, gravity forcing time to perpetually stand still.
Movement IV: “Between Us” by Eileen Neff
A cloud doesn’t belong in an empty room or nestled next to a shrub in a manicured garden. Forests don’t grow out of antique chairs. One tree doesn’t cuddle up to another… Or do they?
The cleverly subtle juxtapositions of natural images and interior scenes in Eileen Neff’s photography/collages create a gently surreal world where assumed boundaries dissolve in the face of unusual relationships. Often digitally manipulated, sometimes found and photographed as they naturally occur, the images radiantly encompass all of the grandeur and minutia of the natural world with sprinklings of ironic humor.
At first, you might assume that Summer: The Couple (2007) is a simple photograph of a tree in a field. But look closely and you’ll see one tiny cedar leaning against the trunk of an enormous walnut tree—tenderness oozing from the image. In the spirit of Marcel Duchamp’s “ready-made” sculptures, Neff captures exquisite moments, revealing her own amusement and appreciation for small surprises.
Other works showcase the clever fusion of disparate situations. In The Visit, a lone evergreen makes a yearning bedside visit in a seemingly empty room. The eerie anthropomorphization recalls both grainy horror movies (What would you do if you awoke to find a tree staring at you?) and poignant sickbed scenes. One of a series of works paying homage to Neff’s favorite writers, Thoreau (2004) encloses a faded dirt road within a large canvas propped on an old wooden table in a white room. It appears both stark and minutely detailed, as the dominant whiteness gives way to faint impressions of forest and distant sky.
Together, the four shows, with all of their differences of media and technique, of interaction and observation, create an exhibition that distills the essence of contemporary art. Interactive, multi-sensory, and site specific with subtle twists and a sense of humor, ICA puts on a good show.
By: Melinda Steffy, for The Bulletin, September 13, 2007