"Pain without Injury: Works by Avi Alpert & Steven Lam, Steve Ausbury, and Olen Hsu," Jan. 5-Jan 27, 2008, at PS122 Gallery, 150 First Avenue, New York, NY 10009
"Pain without Injury," the title of a new group exhibition at PS122 Gallery on First Avenue in the East Village, is a phrase borrowed from promotional material put out by the U.S. military contractor Raytheon. The expression is used to describe an innovative microwave-based ray-gun that emits an invisible electromagnetic beam that blasts the skin of its target subject with intolerable but non-lethal heat -- a weapon especially useful for quelling riots and urban unrest.
As a metaphor, "Pain without Injury" is ominously effective, linking the notion of art as a zone of imaginary freedom with few real-world consequences to an all-too-real contemporary science of war. But the works also make me think of a slogan of post-9/11 life in New York -- "If you see something, say something," which refashions a free-floating sense of dread into a specific prescription for the critic.
Avi Alpert and Steven Lam, two young New York artists, have teamed up to produce a video installation called Missed Connections. They cull and re-work the "missed connections" personal ads from Craigslist and interweave these found texts with footage of New York scenes, from painterly stop-action bits suggestive of Taxi Driver to computer-animated pop-up MTA maps with the Craigslist titles inserted into specific places. Viewers can put on headphones to listen to the texts being read in a deadpan voice, while the video plays on a monitor and is projected onto the floor.
In their mapping of mundane melancholy and faint hope, Alpert and Lam also gesture toward the minute traces of constant monitoring in urban society, whether by Big Brother or that person sitting across from you on the train. The work is suggestive of Baudelaire’s flânerie, Guy Debord’s dérive, filmmaker Wong Kar Wai’s lumpen melodramas and the digital revolution of Google Maps. It’s radical mapping, which is what the smart-art-kids seem to be into these days.
The Brooklyn artist Olen Hsu contributes Eulogy (II), a suite of three long and creamy porcelain horns, dangling from the wall by strips of white fabric as if they might drop and shatter at any moment. Made in Wisconsin at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, the three forms are suspended in mute imitation of an ancient bouquet of flowers.
Also breathtaking is Steve Ausbury’s Excerpts from the Splat Factory. One big wall of the gallery is painted in a pinkish tone and covered with an elaborate drawing made up of profile drawings of a duck (or is it a man with a gas-mask?). The work starts out with a fairly large-scale duck figure at the lower left-hand side of the wall, done in a line made up of tiny duck figures, which appears to unravel and scatter across the space, gelling into three variously sized mandala-like squares that also resemble floating fragments of needlepoint.
But wait! The line itself is actually a series of scribbled texts, written onto the wall using a black micropoint pen. These are Ausbury’s own poems, which sound like the ravings of a madman, who is "mad" because he thinks that the military is following him, keeping track of his every motion, using cameras in the trees, sending out special messages embedded in the announcements made over the loudspeakers at the grocery store, etc.
Each text is a portrait, or so they seem from their first lines: "Portrait of the people who watch me but don’t know me and probably don’t exist either," "Portrait of the camera in the trees," "Portrait of muttering," "Portrait of suspecting" and so on. This is concrete poetry for the information age, with the text enacting its contents, hiding its substance away from all but the most paranoid eye.
ELIZA SLAVET is an artist and writer living in Brooklyn and San Diego.