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Close Encounters


by Linda Yablonsky
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Klara Lidén’s art materials are the stuff of life. I mean, the stuff -- accumulations of no-longer-useful objects that crowd our closets and cabinets and finally end up given away, sold on eBay or dumped in the trash, where they probably belong. Once they hit the streets, Lidén goes to work, picking up those articles she can turn into makeshift shelters, give the brunt of her rage or embrace to allay a private grief. There’s a fetching intimacy to all of her work, even when it is performed in public.

Visitors the 2011 Venice Biennale may remember the battered trash receptacles that the Swedish-born Lidén, 32, collected from city walls and street corners, and installed to surprisingly poignant effect in a decrepit brick room at the back of the Arsenale. Her 2010 show at the Serpentine Gallery in London -- one of the best I saw that year -- included a massive reorganization of every single thing in her old apartment into a condensed block of open storage, and a doorway made impassable by the pile of large advertising banners that she had folded into a stack, as if they were failed paintings too personal to destroy.

The show also had several revealing videos -- for my money, her best medium. In one, she fondled an old bicycle with a steel rod before beating it to death with increasing fury and deliberation. (That’s one way to get past a painful relationship.) In others, she skips stones across the rivers of three different cities, graduates to hurling boulders and then steel beams. She’s brilliant at imbuing inanimate objects -- even whole cityscapes -- with human drama.

The centerpiece of “Pretty Vacant,” Lidén’s third solo show at Reena Spaulings, is a dense forest of discarded Christmas trees that she removed from their post-holiday clutter on New York sidewalks and set in pails of water, under Gro-lights, at the funky Lower East Side gallery. When the show ends, the trees will be given to the parks department for mulching.

The most prominent feature of this environment is its heady, evergreen fragrance. The installation makes a large visual statement too; we’re talking about a lot of trees here, all different sizes, types and shapes, and displaying a variety of green. It’s literally touching, as the trees make unavoidable physical contact with viewers. Crowded together as they are behind a blue construction wall, it’s impossible to pick one’s way through this indoor park to the worn leather loveseat that stands in for a bench at the center, without being pricked or scraped by needle-like branches.

Hanging over the scene is the weight of mortality, of life cut too short, of wastefulness amid splendor. For all the uplift of the infectious aroma, and the surprise of finding the natural world under an exposed wood-beam ceiling in a funky Chinatown loft, a certain melancholy settles on the whole affair. It’s the picture of living death, really -- lovely, peaceful, and “S.A.D.,” the work’s clever title.

S.A.D., of course, is the acronym for Seasonal Affective Disorder, the winter blues, a chemical imbalance in the brain triggered by cyclical changes in the environment. If Lidén’s S.A.D. reaches for a cause-and-effect link between commercial consumption and a suffering environment, it sidesteps kneejerk liberalism by also being an act of redemption. It may be pointless to create an illusion of life and growth with essentially dead trees headed for the chipper -- but it’s a valiant move all the same.

Life, death, salvation -- what more can you ask of art? Conceptualist projects are seldom this organic. Simplicity becomes Lidén’s work, as does its lack of guile.

That doesn’t mean it exists as a symbolic gesture alone. Lidén lets no opportunity go to waste. Her gallery may be known best as a place for experimentation, but it’s still a business, and S.A.D. comes with a $65,000 price tag for collectors who want to order a recreation of the piece for themselves.

Also for sale is a weathered hanging lamp that Lidén fashioned from orange traffic cones she lifted from neighborhood streets. ($20,000 in an edition of three, all sold.) Those with shallower pockets (and $400) can take home a handmade flip book with cardboard covers and grainy black-and-white prints that show Lidén-the-interventionist descending through three different manholes in Berlin and disappearing into the sewer system below.

Three related inkjet prints of modest size ($10,000 to $15,000) fill out the rest of the show. The photos, taken in Berlin, San Antonio and New York, show Lidén treating each city as personal property -- stepping through a manhole, climbing a lamppost, or (in the most evocative) standing on a lonesome pylon that once supported a pier in the Hudson River, as if she were mourning its loss. In this way, she points up the discards and the neglected souls in otherwise thriving cities, making herself both a thorn in the side and a living emblem of each.

An exhibition of Lidén’s new work is slated for the New Museum and opens on May 9, 2012.

“Klara Lidén: Pretty Vacant,” Jan. 12-Feb. 10, 2012, Reena Spaulings Fine Art, 185 East Broadway, New York, N.Y. 10002.

LINDA YABLONSKY is an art critic who writes for, the Art Newspaper, T: The New York Times Style Magazine, W and other publications.