"Man is an automaton," said my roommate during my sophomore year in college. He listened to Coltrane, read Joyce and claimed to write the same paper -- titled "Man Is an Automaton" -- for every assignment. His attitude was nihilistic, if in a harmless undergraduate way.
The Museum of Modern Art has something similar going on, though with whimsy rather than depression, in its current "Projects" show by the Berlin-based Danish artist Henrik Olesen (b. 1967). There, in a single smallish gallery, the artist presents three "portraits" made by disassembling his subjects’ computers and displaying the assorted parts arranged in neat grids (mounted on Plexiglas, two hanging in midair and a third, which actually seems to be just an anonymous Power Mac, on the wall).
This is an idea that seems quite familiar, though if that counted as serious criticism, Hugh Hefner would have published a single issue of Playboy and been done with it.
You’d think that the real stuff of a portrait would be found not in the hardware but in the digitalia, but never mind. The day is carried by the expressive, rather than conceptual, resonance of seeing one of these infernal machines discombobulated into inanimate pieces, as also happens in the finales of The Terminator (1984), Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003) and Terminator Salvation (2009).
We are all machines, Olesen suggests, and if any doubt remains as to this notion, the installation includes some notebook-paper-sized drawings, dotted with elementary block letters in alphabeticalish order, with occasional legible notes to the effect of "how do I make myself a body" and suchlike.
Olesen also gives us a plain wall (with a smudge or two), titled Entrance/Exit (2011), and a row of three or four empty screw-holes called, plaintively, Ghost (2011). Especially good is the cardboard box sitting on the floor, which has some disassembled mechanical parts -- the electronic gear that came in the box, perhaps? -- stuffed back into it with almost palpable frustration. This too is familiar as life, but as sculpture, I like it.
One might note here that Olesen, who is represented by the estimable Galerie Daniel Buchholz in Cologne, took part in the Nordic Pavilion at the 2008 Venice Biennale and, along with shows at other museums across the continent, is currently busy with a 15-year survey of his work that recently premiered at the Malmö Konsthall and opens at the Kunstmuseum Basel in May. Just makes you love Europe, doesn’t it?
"Projects 94: Henrik Olesen," Feb. 9-May 23, 2011, at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, New York, N.Y. 10019.
WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.