Ohad Meromi, "Cyclops," Aug. 31-Oct. 8, 2005, at Harris Lieberman, 89 Vandam Street, New York, N.Y. 10013
On first approach, the new installation by Israel-born, Columbia-trained Ohad Meromi (b. 1967) –- the inaugural show at Jessie Washburne-Harris and Michael Lieberman’s gallery on the edge of SoHo –- is as airy as the impressive new space.
In the main room, you find a collection of objects with playful, mythical resonances, arranged in a deliberately haphazard way. Leaned casually against a pillar at the center of the large space is a comically giant-sized guitar, and nearby a large mirror is hung on the wall beside a hat-rack-like stand with two boxy cardboard masks dangling from it. Mounted high up on another wall is a shelf presenting a series of totem-like artifacts, out of range of close inspection, but appearing decidedly chintzy, all orange styrofoam and pink plastic. The room is framed on either side by low bleachers painted black, red, white and green, as if there were a stage at the center of the room.
The display seems lighthearted, but Meromi, who has had solo exhibitions at both the Tel Aviv and Jerusalem Museums, has in the past made very solemn pronouncements about work with much less substantial content than this –- for example, Screen and Totem, a 2001 sculpture in the form of a geometrically patterned folding screen which the artist says is a commentary on Israel’s culture as "a collision of modernization and fundamentalism." Passing into the smaller, darkened viewing room that adjoins the main gallery, the show’s central piece, the 20-min. video Cyclops II, makes it clear that the installation is about the place of myth in the contemporary world.
The video is the artist’s own rendition of Euripides’ The Cyclops, a farcical telling of the encounter of Odysseus with the titular one-eyed man-beast, Polyphemus. In the original, the hero encounters a chattering chorus of satyrs, has part of his crew eaten by the Cyclops, and then finally uses the monster’s randiness and love of drink to distract him, poke out his eye and escape.
Eurpides’ work is a "satyr play," and Meromi’s project is a clever riff on this traditional form. Satyr plays were short, hotwired versions of Greek myths, transforming the somber originals into burlesques. In his video, Meromi performs this operation to the second degree. Cyclops II takes Euripides’ original text and reduces it completely to fragments -- there is no dialogue, and any attempt to hold the narrative together is gone, turning it into a series of loosely connected comic events. Key elements of Euripides’ original float by –- the arrival of the heroes, the encounter with Polyphemus, the escape -- but they are as loosely connected as the props arranged in the main gallery.
Satyr plays were also characterized by adding incongruous elements to a known myth (the lewd chorus of satyrs is the best example in Euripedes’ Cyclops). In turn, Meromi introduces a host of incongruous elements into this satyr play, in the form of inexplicable science fiction references: Odysseus and Co. wear huge, unwieldy blue and red helmets (as well as giant, swinging blue phalluses), and employ some kind of space cruiser.
The style is willfully naïf. Aerial shots of the island reveal a sinister terrain quite clearly made of papier-mache, and the Cyclops is played by a guy wearing a bag with a hole in it on his head. Meromi’s cast, composed of a gang of artist friends like Guy Ben Ner, Mika Rottenberg and Jacob Dyrenforth, more than once appear to be holding back smiles as they waddle about. Accompanied by composer Lior Navok’s score, which fluctuates from ominous bleeps and bloops to spacey guitar jam, what comes across is a sense of pointed childishness, the free-associative montage sometimes producing a Teletubbies-like mesmeric effect.
Notably, the violent parts of the original tale, such as the crew-devouring and eye-gouging incidents, are only just barely hinted at in Cyclops II, as if it were trying to present a space of pure positive energy. This sense also bears on Meromi’s choice of the satyr play as his material: Satyr plays were traditionally performed after a series of three tragedies to lighten things up at the end of a drama festival, which means that they were broadly humorous, but without the political satire of real Greek comedies. A satyr play on its own is all desert, no dinner.
This seems to be the point. In a culture that faces the dangerous combination of "modernization and fundamentalism," such as that of the artist’s native Israel (or his present context, the U.S. of "intelligent design"), where contemporary people still have to deal with the deadly force of arcane myths, Meromi’s celebration and exaggeration of Euripides’ lampoon of the Odyssey -- one of the most fundamental stories of Western Culture -- seems to argue that the only refuge is total farce.
Whether this is an effective strategy is open to debate, but it’s a debate that Meromi opens up the space to have. In a nice move, his video does not play in a continuous loop, but pauses for ten minutes in between as thoughtful piano music comes on, as if to give you time to talk things through with your friends.
BEN DAVIS is associate editor of Artnet Magazine.