Art Seen: Chicago

THE RENAISSANCE SOCIETY // SUICIDE NARCISSUS

by Ruslana Lichtzier

The current exhibition at The Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago, Suicide Narcissus, deals with the overwhelming threats of climate change. Curated by Hamza Walker, and featuring works by eight European and South American artists; its theme is not one of recent exception. The environmental trend began to gain its exhibitionist popularity about five years ago, frequently narrating itself as a productive platform, proclaiming to “foster new research and fresh thinking,” as, for example, MoMA and PS1’s joint exhibition Rising Currents, in 2010.

PetritschSix_big

Nicole Six and Paul Petritsch Spatial Intervention I (still), 2002 video, 28 min

Suicide Narcissus though, symptomatic in nature, takes a surprising turn by renouncing itself of any promising semi-practical venues for change, which are so often fashionably featured in art spaces around the globe. From the onset, the PR reveals its infirm engagement towards rescuing solutions for the human race, “Our ecological crisis taints all facets of our relationship to nature such that culture and our quest for knowledge can only be juxtaposed against reflections on folly, catastrophe, and death.” Implementing a secular construction – one that does not trust its faith in redemption, though it presents enthusiastic scholastic attempts – the show unfolds itself as an exhibit of the world without us. While Walker writes regarding “the questions formulated in our universities, libraries, laboratories, zoos, museums, and observatories … double as a mirror in which we cast the question as to whether we are alone in the universe,[1]” he creates an environment that duplicates these knowledge structures into an evacuated, abandoned surrounding.

Thomas Baumann Tau Sling, 2008 wood, rope, motor, mirror 320 cm x 140 cm x 44 cm

Thomas Baumann Tau Sling, 2008 wood, rope, motor, mirror 320 cm x 140 cm x 44 cm

Such is the case with the works in the exhibition – an automated, ever-cycling loose loop of rope, touching, caressing its own image on a floor mirror, in Thomas Baumann, Tau Sling, or a 16mm projection of a continuous long shot: a camera, that becomes the leading actor and the operator of the piece, smoothly advancing through the jungle of the Atlantic forest, where man finds it nearly impossible to move through with the same steadiness in Daniel Steegman Mangrane, 16mm. To the exterior of the intimate viewing room is Nicole Six and Paul Petritsch’s Spatial Intervention I, a 28-minute still shot of a man standing in a frozen dismal field with no horizon, hitting a spot on the ice with a pick with no progression, and no resolution.

Daniel Steegman Mangrane 16mm, 2009-2011 16 mm film, color, synchronized 5.1 digital sound 5 26

Daniel Steegman Mangrane 16mm, 2009-2011 16 mm film, color, synchronized 5.1 digital sound 5 26

At the entrance of the exhibition, to the right, partitioned walls with narrow gaps reveal what seem to be massive segments of a hidden, prehistoric skeleton. The attempt to locate a passage into the space that contains the object fails as you navigate the galleries. The skeleton of a sperm whale remains purposefully away through the contraction of the wall as a frame; secured from our full vision. The work’s title, Leviathan’s Edge, reveals its tie to our innermost cultural fears and desires. The Leviathan is, after all, a mythical sea monster that the Talmud refers to it as the prime flesh to be served to the righteous, but in the Christian tradition is the image of Satan. This piece could have come out of a post-human natural history museum that had ceased its commitment for preservation and education. Lucy Skaer, the artist behind this piece, does not construct it for or against our gaze – but despite it.

Haris Epaminonda and Daniel Gustav Cramer The Infinite Library, 2007 to the present 12 out of 60 artist s books

Haris Epaminonda and Daniel Gustav Cramer The Infinite Library, 2007 to the present 12 out of 60 artist s books

Another project, The Infinite Library, by Haris Epaminonda and Daniel Gustav Cramer presents 12 out of 60 artist books in 6 table vitrines. The open pages reveal a poetic construction of the cultural visual history. Anthropological images are juxtaposed with architecture, natural science with art history. The artists aim: “to reassemble two different books in a manner that each second page of one book would be put together with each second page of the other, would result in two volumes of similar weight, though varying in content.[2]” One can find the book Brazil – Paradise of Precious Stones from 1982 coupled with 150 Homes, published in 1932. The images from Projection Drawings and Descriptive Geometry from 1956 are printed over Lanzarote by Marcel Jaquet, published in 1981. Although the artists intend to create an infinite library that overwrites notions of authorship and knowledge structures while basing its actions on chance, it instead manifests their own aesthetic preferences. While it is more than intriguing to envision this inhuman enterprise, which reveals the true purpose of all books as detailed in the artists’ proposal, the cool aesthetics of the juxtaposed images exposing the artists own authorship. This, a method born of the initial intention to present a horizontal history, once a revolutionary notion, is rather, now one experienced daily by the ubiquitousness of Google image search tool.

Katie Paterson All the Dead Stars, 2009 laser etched, anodized aluminum 78 3/4 x 118 1/8 in

Katie Paterson All the Dead Stars, 2009 laser etched, anodized aluminum 78 3/4 x 118 1/8 in

In front of the entrance a large-scale black aluminum rectangle All the Dead Stars, by Katie Paterson – an etching of a map that leans against the wall, tracing all the dead stars recorded throughout human history. The dark object positions itself with minimal principles of the almost outrageous existential question asked by Walker, “what is the true nature of reality?[3]” The object asks this question, though the possibility of any answer falls into a black hole.

Lucy Skaer Leviathan's Edge, 2009 Whale skeleton, drywall

Lucy Skaer Leviathan’s Edge, 2009 Whale skeleton, drywall

However, the exhibition’s name does draw back, as Skaer’s Leviathan’s Edge, to a mythical origin. Narcissus’ legend is defined by an extreme self-absorption that leads to suicide, and underlines Walker’s title being a kind of a playful nullifying paradox. But, it is not the end of the story. Instead, as Echo, visitors walk through the exhibition enthralled, their utterances unanswered. We may ask if Walker uses climate change as a metaphor to position the harsh relationship between art that in its best appearances turns its back to culture and us that are doomed to live the consequences of tomorrow.



Ruslana Lichtzier is an artist and writer, recently graduated from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago

Suicide Narcissus runs through December 15 at The Renaissance Society, 5811 S. Ellis Avenue, Chicago, IL.


[1] http://www.renaissancesociety.org/site/Exhibitions/Intro.Suicide-Narcissus.642.html

[2] Proposal The Infinite Library, Haris Epaminonda and Daniel Gustav Cramer: http://www.harisepaminonda.com/epaminonda-cramer.pdf

[3] http://www.renaissancesociety.org/site/Exhibitions/Essay.Suicide-Narcissus.642.html

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