About halfway through the first-floor segment of "Brooklyn!" -- now on display at the Palm Beach Institute of Contemporary Art (PBICA) in Lake Worth -- lurks an uncanny reminder of how art and life sometimes occupy the same territory.
It's a two-part 1999 video installation called Crash by Christoph Draeger, situated in a little alcove. The first part is an eleven-and-a-half-minute video loop projected onto a wall, accompanied by a soundtrack that includes selections from Brian Eno's haunting Music for Airports. The footage consists of an array of air disasters, taken from sources that include amateur videos, news clips, government films, and Hollywood movies.
Again and again we see the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle, the crash of the Hindenburg, and countless other similar catastrophes. The second part is a separate monitor nearby, continuously scrolling a seven-and-a-half-minute video with the details of a gut-wrenchingly long list of real-life air disasters: the dates of the crashes, the aircraft involved, and the numbers of victims.
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The cumulative emotional effect of this eerily prescient piece is devastating. It's like watching the endless TV replays of those two jet airplanes slamming into the World Trade Center on September 11 and reading the lists of casualties in the newspapers afterward.
The piece was briefly shut down by a museum employee the day of the attacks. But PBICA director Michael Rush, who curated the show with Dominique Nahas, restored it, as well he should have. Art should never be silent, should never avert its eyes from the world that surrounds us. (A second Draeger piece titled Catastrophe #1, an acrylic rendering of the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew, makes the same point.)
Nothing else in "Brooklyn!" has a comparable impact, and it's just as well -- museumgoers might not be able to make it through the show otherwise. But this ambitious exhibition of more than 130 works by more than 80 Brooklyn-based artists contains plenty of other works that reassert the vitality of contemporary American art.
Much of the material here feels like filler -- a problem that, in a show this big and varied, is probably inevitable: run-of-the-mill photographs and abstract paintings, videos that leave you asking, "So what?" Some gimmicks work (Dan Devine's constructions that turn a pair of Nike Air shoes and a computer inside out), and some don't (Allison Smith's display case filled with various interpretations of Whitman's Sampler candy boxes).
But the exhibition also offers some pieces that are bracingly bold. Bruce Pearson's A Simple Answer takes the letters of the work's title and repeatedly encrypts them in the styrofoam surface of the piece, which is then painted with oil and acrylic to create a sort of op art mandala. For the mixed-media installation Missed Once, Diana Cooper uses low-tech materials to mimic the high-tech circuitry of an unspecified electronic device.
Perry Hoberman likewise tweaks technology with a series of C-prints called Cathartic User Interface Messages. The seven images parody the sort of error prompts all too familiar to any frustrated computer user: "Please wait patiently while your entire hard drive is reformatted with meaningless garbage"; "There is not enough RAM in the known universe to complete the task you have requested" (included are buttons to "Accept" or "Rejoice"); and "The operation has failed. Would you like to try again? It will only fail again."
Technology is used to suggest the organic in Tumid, Lee Boroson's construction consisting of a chair holding a huge, red nylon balloon of sorts that inflates and deflates at timed intervals. From the right vantage point -- the piece sits high in a shelflike corner at the foot of a staircase leading to the second floor -- the balloon takes on droll phallic connotations.
One small gallery downstairs is devoted to a hypnotic Gregory Barasamian piece called Lather. The darkened room contains a large, spidery steel structure ringed with more than a dozen pairs of motorized foam rubber hands that endlessly wash themselves. The resultant lather, as it falls, mysteriously transforms into small paper bags, which then crumple and return to liquid form before landing on foam rubber faces below. The whole process takes place illuminated by a strobe light that makes figuring out how the illusion is created impossible.
Another area downstairs features an exact replica of the Holland Tunnel gallery, an outdoor shed that Dutch-born artist Paulien Lethen turned into a miniature gallery in her back yard in Brooklyn's Williamsburg neighborhood. The works of the 11 artists represented here are mostly unexciting, but the concept is provocative.
A few works are site-specific. James Cullinane's Reef -- based on an image of two boys in a schoolyard taken from a 1945 exercise manual produced by Spain's propaganda department -- comprises thousands of steel tacks and pushpins nailed into the curved wall at the base of the staircase below the aforementioned Tumid. Around the corner, beneath that same staircase, Julianne Swartz turns a long, narrow closet into an elaborate installation called Transfer. The door is ajar, and you can lean across a guardrail to see a bizarre conglomeration of halogen lamps and bulbs, a fan, tinsel, mirrors, pinwheels, lenses, and other items.
But the piece doesn't end there. A few inches from the outside wall, a cloudy Plexiglas panel is mounted in front of a peephole that lets you look into the closet. Finally, a long stretch of plastic tubing containing fiber-optic cable snakes its way out of the closet, up the wall, and into a corner at the top of the stairs. What's the point? I have no idea, but it's a fascinating bit of business.
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Even more fascinating is an upstairs piece by Mary Ziegler, enigmatically titled Chartres. It's an exotic contraption that looks like something straight out of science fiction, with a cylindrical pedestal more than four feet tall topped with a marblelike Plexiglas disk 18 inches in diameter. A motorized magnetic antenna at one edge sporadically twitches into motion, and in response tiny metal filings go scurrying around the disk. At one point they're funneled through a pair of metal brackets, and at another they encounter a small metal barrier. Between these obstacles dozens of tiny holes trap and then release the filings.
The curators have posted this interpretation on a wall opposite Ziegler's piece: "This sculpture uses the motion of mechanics and physical forces to invoke the subtleties, humor, and complications of human behavior. Her work utilizes chance and chaos to bring to life the fleeting nature of balance and control. The erratic movement of tiny metal filings creates a mini-drama reflecting basic human struggle."
Normally I'm not too keen on reading so much into a work of art, but Chartres really is so strange and cryptic that it invites a wide range of speculation about the artist's intentions and results. Like many of the works of the great Marcel Duchamp, it's a quirky piece that embraces whimsicality and mysticism simultaneously.
"Brooklyn!" is one of the first handful of major exhibitions mounted by PBICA since it opened a little more than a year and a half ago, and it strengthens the institute's standing as one of the premier showcases for contemporary art in South Florida. Miami-Dade County has its Museum of Contemporary Art, and now Palm Beach County has its Palm Beach Institute of Contemporary Art. If only Broward County were as lucky.