The expectation that art should instil a sense of wonder is, I think, usually a deficient one. While ‘wonder’ is a pretty good metric for experience, it’s a fairly shallow response to art, in the sense that it leaves little room for the reactions of scrutiny and ambivalence that the best works invite. The spell of wonder is an ambivalent form of magic: momentarily suspending disbelief and provoking a pleasurable lack of critical agency, and hence a kind of dumbness. Dumbness, though can sometimes be wonderfully close to a certain kind of intelligence. If the ‘Quasi-Objects’ in Parreno’s exhibition of the same name at Esther Schipper are stupid, it’s because they are so almost ‘smart’: self-aware, automatic and nearly indifferent to their viewers, as if they’ve developed feelings but not yet learned what to do with them. Another way of understanding Parreno’s ‘quasi-objects’ is as quasi-subjects, or near automata: like the self-playing Disklavier piano, gloomily alone, striking the contorted triads of Franz Liszt’s Nuages Gris (Grey Clouds, 1881) on a pristine, illuminated glass podium amid a cloud of floating sea-creature -shaped balloons within a tangled, flickering environment of lights (Quasi Objects: My Room is a Fish Bowl, AC/DC Snakes, Happy Ending, Il Tempo del Postino, Opalescent acrylic glass podium, Disklavier Piano, 2014).
Parreno’s balloons seemed to delight yet infantilize their viewers. Then again, this state of phenomenal awe also applies to Parreno’s ‘quasi-objects’ and their tragically limited, and self-limiting, existence. In AC/DC Platform (2013), the hyper-extended electrical plugs and adapters combine in near-sculptural configurations leading nowhere, connecting nothing but their own connectivity. There is a balance of beauty in this self-opposition. We can say ‘beauty’ because Parreno likes dusting off clichés like beauty, or wonder, though always with a judicious knowledge of such a concept’s brief lifespan when it’s redeemed, and the failure and graceful deflation that follows. Everything here, from Mylar helium balloons to the torturously tangled light installations (Flickering Light, 2013) to our reactions and counter-reactions, has been fastidiously scripted; Parreno, like a good magician, hides (or pretends to hide) the machinery behind this (while manneredly lifting the curtain a little); and while his installations are controlled, metaphorical, metaphysical and atmospheric, their self-serious theatricality is usually obviated by a burlesque component. As such, his work deftly avoids earnest conceptualizing on the one hand (the metaphor of gallery as a fishbowl) and the metaphysics of atmosphere on the other (a pure phenomenology of sounds, lights and floating things). Here, the rigour of the fishbowl metaphor and the scripted, programmed exhibition environment, is deliberately deflated by the introduction of aleatory elements, like swatting a balloon away as it lands on your shoulder.
But can a script ever be aleatory? This question was asked and re-asked in postwar music and dance by the likes of John Cage, Merce Cunningham and Mauricio Kagel (who adapted Nuages Gris in his 1972 composition Unguis incarnatus est). There wasn’t much to ‘see’ in Parreno’s concurrent exhibition at the Schinkel Pavillon, ‘How Can We Tell the Dancers from the Dance’. Parreno recorded a rehearsal session of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in New York, and presented the audio (grunts, taps, feet on a stage), as well as the sounds of construction around the Schinkel Pavillon during the installation. The resulting audio was accompanied by an empty white circular dance floor in the middle of the space and a mysteriously roving wall that went round-and-round (like one of those cleaning machines at the bottom of a pool). Vibrating through the sheer percussive audio of feet, breathing and construction noise, the piece coagulated into a bizarrely fascinating, punctuated tribal music, emotive and vigorous because of its sensory deprivation, its partiality.
For the sheer novelty of the experiences they provoke, Parreno’s exhibitions reach back to historical cases of wonder, such as the Mechanical Turk – the cranking near-automaton that stumped chess players in the 19th century (really a man hiding inside) – while also pointing to the emergent ‘Internet of Things’ wherein everything (from a light bulb to a balloon) is connected and thus susceptible to a totalized glitch. At either end, the sense of a fastidiously accounted-for stage – mixing virtuality with spectacle – puts the viewer in a peculiar position, in that he or she is both delighted and immobilized. Parreno’s near-post-human works lead to bizarre conclusions: one is the crisis of subjectivity and objecthood alike underpinning these quasi-objects and quasi-subjects. Hence, for all their potential fluff, Parreno’s exhibitions actually lead to a deep, philosophical openness to states of being outside the parameters of being human. These questions are moving because they are sincere: wouldn’t it be better and more beautiful to be a mere thing, like a lampshade or an arc of wall? And with a sadness that is entirely not cynical: quasi-object, thou art more lovely.