Thursday, August 20, 2009

Anri Sala and "Time-Based Art"

'Time-Based Art' Looks Great at CAC
By Steven Rosen

(This first appeared in Cincinnati CityBeat on Aug. 12, 2009)

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So often has it been said that the Contemporary Arts Center needs to carefully select shows to fit its unconventional Zaha Hadid-designed space that it’s almost a mantra.

As has been seen in the past, imported traveling exhibits — especially group shows relying on paintings — have a tendency to get lost amid the angles, offbeat spaces, stairways and hidden corners of the downtown building’s interior. But done right, the shows can be as exciting as the building itself — the galleries have an ongoing capacity to surprise.

And Raphaela Platow, since becoming the museum’s director and chief curator in 2007, has made that a top priority. For the 2008-09 season, she dispensed with group shows in favor of one-person exhibits, including mixed-media installations by Carlos Amorales and Tara Donovan that were site-responsive. Donovan’s recently concluded show was as good as anything I’ve seen at the CAC — sculptural assemblages made from everyday material that seemed to overflow its spatial boundaries and flood the entire building with its presence.

But I might even like the current show (and last of the 2008-09 season) better, the Platow-curated "Purchase Not By Moonlight: Anri Sala." Expecting “merely” an exhibit of short films/videos — possibly confined to small screens in compartmentalized side rooms — I went somewhat guardedly. But the show interacts so well, and so completely, with the two floors of the museum reserved for it that the experience is transformative.

Sala, an Albanian-born artist now living in Berlin, does far more than make short films/videos. To use a phrase I read (and liked) in The New York Times, he makes “time-based art,” a term that brings together film, performance, sound installations and sculptures made of permeable materials that undergo ongoing change.

Such work increasingly represents contemporary art’s vanguard. Sala is concerned not merely with pairing moving images with sound, but in trying to visualize the impact of sound (including music) on us and our environment.

If that sounds quixotically intellectual, he pursues his quest with a visceral punch and a sense of compelling drama. For instance, his “Answer Me” features a man playing drums while a woman appears to speak to him — or, rather, at him, since he apparently can’t hear above the din to reply.

The work is actually more than filmed imagery — there is a real drum and drumstick in the room that automatically make sound at intervals. “Answer Me” can be glimpsed and heard throughout the floor, echoing through the CAC’s spaces, massaging over and roaming past other films to create a total environment.

In “Long Sorrow,” which is in its own room, an improvising Jazz saxophonist slowly plays, outside the context of a club but rather within a busy urban environment. The camera and the sound mix move in and out to take in his surroundings and music while studying his determination. The room for this particular piece has a bench to sit and watch, which raises an issue.

As museums increasingly feature such “time-based art,” they need to create spaces to let visitors spend a lot of time with each piece. Because this is a summer show — and film/video is harder to promote than sculpture and painting — I’m a little worried this exhibit isn’t going to get the audience it deserves. (It will stay indefinitely into fall, since the next exhibit, a group show called Young Country, has been cancelled.)