BY Janet Abrams in Reviews | 05 MAR 93
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Issue 9

Art at the Armory: Occupied Territory

BY Janet Abrams in Reviews | 05 MAR 93

Two months into Art at the Armory, the visitor's book was filled with appeals not to raze the eponymous behemoth housing this one-time-only exhibition, curated by Beryl Wright of Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art. These pleas are destined to fall on deaf ears, because the Chicago Avenue National Guard Armory is already slated for demolition this spring, to make way for the MCA's new home, designed by the German architect Josef Kleihues. But the expressions of empathy for this stolid but characterful structure probably also reflect an appetite for other kinds of venues in which to encounter art, besides the generic white cube - of which Kleihues' design promises bland variants.

Entering the portals of the Armory was very much to step into a time warp; one felt conscious of being granted 'special leave' to access a place normally off-limits. Indeed, much of the pleasure in viewing this show derived from the opportunity to ramble at will through diverse spaces freighted with associations. Customised signs leading to the 18 different installations were juxtaposed against the crude graphics of National Guard notices and other evidence of its ongoing occupation during the show's run. Along with flaking paint, brown woodwork, and the dour colour schemes typical of institutional buildings of a certain era, these echoes of a regimented life pervaded one's perceptions of the work on display.

Relatively few of the installations were, in fact, commissioned specifically for the show, and those that were, tended to make best use of the Armory's grand and grimy spaces. In Rumor, Haha, a Chicago-based collaborative, used a minimum of effects to render a certain charged appreciation of the drab Visitor's Apartment on the ground floor. A television playing in the living room and a daily-fresh copy of the local newspaper served to give the illusion of current occupation. Only belatedly did one notice the fine grooves in the walls, and the plastic explosive packed at intervals into shallow recesses: the apartment had been professionally wired for demolition, under Haha's direction.

In the stair towers at the east end, New York architects Diller & Scofidio had also wired the building, but this time for visual surveillance. Glass window panels switched electronically from clear to opaque, allowing one alternately to see through to adjacent buildings, and to read texts describing characters identified in black and white photos, and targeted by red cross-hairs. One found oneself seduced into acts of voyeurism while simultaneously being watched from behind by close-circuit cameras relaying to monitors on the stair landings. Thus, the thickness of the Armory's walls dissolved into the flimsiness of twitched suburban net curtains.

Several installations referred to questions of the body, few with more than the most bludgeoning obviousness. Seen elsewhere, Arnold Crane's close-ups of female anatomy would have seemed closer to a porno calendar than to art. The Lazaretto, another collaborative, lined half its space with first-person testimonies of the ravages of AIDS, handwritten on roughly tacked sheets of white paper. Though the statements were frequently arresting, the attempt at unmediated declamation swiftly palled into harangue.

Some of the most powerful pieces were resoundingly simple in terms of materials. Elizabeth Newman's Histories of Human Flesh, specifically created for one of the attics, sparingly disposed icons of motherhood and war in a sequence of spaces under the eaves: frozen breast milk, tiny socks, a worn blanket, a plaster cast of a baby's feet, a pestle filled with lacrymal pellets of white wax. Fragranced with the evocative scent of baby powder, the memorial atmosphere was reinforced by the sound of a boy's choir singing requiem mass, played on an antique gramophone.

Francesc Torres' Destiny, Entropy and Junk took commanding possession of the Armory's arena, hitherto known as a place for watching polo matches while eating dust-encrusted fried chicken, but now emptied of such Ben Hur activity. Torres arranged seven luxury car wrecks in the space, all victims of front-end collisions - spotlit as if in some perverse car showroom. Like broken chargers, these 'nose-jobs' were each accompanied by images of bomb-damaged German statues, mounted on simple stands: parallel cases of severe loss of face. A video projected onto raked salt, in the centre, montaged scenes of commercial and cultural strife, while above its soundtrack a single sustained musical tone cast an eerie lamentation. Summoning the ghosts of gladiatorial battles in other arenas of conflict, it was salutary to stand in this brooding vault of ignominious consumption, just yards from the madding Christmas shopping crowds on Michigan Avenue.

Doug Hall's The Terrible Uncertainty of the Thing Described combined a multi-screen video presentation of the extremes of natural energy (lightning, tornadoes, wind, liquid steel) with a single powerful dose of the real thing: one million volts discharged every half hour in a spark gap between two oversized metal chairs lined up behind protective fencing. One sat expectantly in the darkened chamber, awaiting the event. The crackling dénouement of Hall's freak-of-nature show - a dendritic burst of purple light lasting several seconds - had a fortuitous counterpart in Bill Viola's The Theater of Memory. Deep in the basement, the piece included a full-size felled tree, its roots and branches as solid and enduring as Hall's natural phenomenon was fleeting.

Two sets of circles, by Tatsuo Miyajima and Michael Shaughnessy, finally offered the most memorable and enigmatic presences, each working their respective spaces to the full. Shaughnessy's Da Fáinne/Cruinnige Eirig (Two Rings/Gathered Rising) gave new meaning to 'a roll in the hay', consisting of two gigantic doughnuts of this raw material, packed and stitched onto metal armatures. Paired like furry lifesavers, and reaching high into the volume of the basketball court, their epic form played off the circular floor markings that designate opposing teams' territory, while mocking the idea of victory gained by mere passing through hoops.

Deep in the basement, a pitch dark chamber held Miyajima's ravishing 5 Opposing Circles, bracelets of breathing numerals flickering on and off in randomised sequences. Like some species of undersea creature, gently aspirating in the silence, or a series of hot plates, these circles of red and green electronic counters created a mesmerising perspective, and induced the impression of wading knee-deep through some tarry fluid as one ventured gingerly to the far end of the cavern, illuminated only by these tiny lights. Delicate and economic, Miyajima's piece seemed strangely apposite for Chicago, a city which one perceives, flying in at night across the black of Lake Michigan, as a perspectival grid of lights, receding to infinity.