January 21, 2005

Forget Survivor: Renaissance Society offers the ultimate "reality show"

Have you ever wondered, "Where is my Buddha mind?" Take a trip up to the fourth floor of Cobb; perhaps you'll find some answers. The new show at the Renaissance Society, "The Here and Now," contains three works of sculpture by three different artists: Javier Tellez, Sanford Biggers, and Katrin Sigurdardottir.

A large helium balloon filling nearly the entire antechamber of the gallery confronts the viewer at the show's entrance. To enter, he must awkwardly slip into the narrow space between it and the wall. This work by Venezuelan artist Javier Tellez makes it impossible for the viewer to avoid an immediate awareness of his relationship to the work and the space. Printed on the surface of the balloon is its title, "Socle Du Monde" (which translates to "Base of the World").

Tellez thereby references the early conceptual artist Piero Manzoni, whose work of the same title consisted of a simple iron base that he claimed would serve as a pedestal for the world. In contrast to Manzoni, however, who sought to transform the entire world into art, Tellez wants to understand things as they are. His balloon wants to float away but is confined by the museum ceiling. It cannot be anything other than itself. Rather than attempting to turn life into art, Tellez wants to bring art back to life.

Getting past the cramped first room, the viewer enters the open, light-filled main gallery. On one side sits two meditation stations, each with four tatami mats and four silver bowls. This work by Sanford Biggers is titled "Both/And Not Either/Or, Inscribed Buddhist Singing Bowls." Biggers invites the viewer to sit on the mats and ring the "singing bowls" with a mallet. This work allows the viewer to sense the surroundings through the feel of the sitting cushions, the touch of the mallets, and the echoing sounds off the walls. Listening to the resonant tones provides a pleasant, perhaps even spiritual moment.

Biggers attempts to get beyond the material through what he calls "transcending the label." Criticizing "bling-bling mentality," he made the bowls by melting down pieces of "hip-hop jewelry," so as to bring this money-crazed, flashy industry back to its original pure sound. He thereby transforms materialism into meditation. Engraved on the side of each bowl is "hip-hop," followed by the Japanese words for "in fond memory."

Much like the other two works, "High Plane 3" by Katrin Sigurdardottir alerts the viewer to his surroundings through an unusual use of the gallery space. A wooden platform rests on the gridded light fixtures and is suspended high above the room. Two steep, six-foot stairways allow the viewer to climb up the platform to physically experience the work. Once the viewer gets to the platform, however, he finds a hole large enough only for his head to stick through. From this perspective, he finds a peculiar world of tiny blue foam mountains—a miniature landscape where his head, in a sense, becomes another island. As curator Hamza Walker states, "The scale becomes the head, and at the same time, it also becomes the space in the head. The sculptures disappear. It is actually a conceptual world."

This dream-like landscape could plausibly exist in certain parts of the world, but certainly does not. It exists only in the imagination, only in the mind that has been severed from the body by the platform. At first, the rolling, mountainous terrain seems realistic. It is even lit by the natural light of the gallery space. But upon closer inspection, one sees the seams where the mountains were put together. All of the materials were purchased at a hardware store! As Sigurdardottir states, "The materialism of the world above is no more precious than the world below."

But the ultimate shock back to reality comes when another head pops up through the other hole in the platform. Suddenly the viewer realizes how ridiculous it is to live solely in the realm of the mind, closed off from the here and now.

At first glance, these works appear completely unrelated. But with some concentration, it becomes clear how each one plays off the other—making the viewer acutely aware not only of the physical surroundings of the gallery, but of his own thoughts as well. Following the intricacies of this show is much like trying to unravel a Zen koan.