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Who’s There?

Annette Messager, "My Vows," 1990.

The incoming students at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts are being asked to visit and write about the “Haunted” exhibition at the Guggenheim before it closes next week. Although I’ve already written about the Casebere photograph in that show, I visited the show again yesterday in order to follow my students’ exercise. They are supposed to describe a moment at the show that was particularly significant to them — a sight, sound, interaction, impression, memory….

On site, I found myself thinking about spirals. They were everywhere: in Annette Messager’s photocollage “My Vows” (at right), in Robert Rauschenberg’s self-portrait (below), and of course in the museum’s architecture itself.  The theme of the exhibit suggested the simultaneity of absence and presence. To haunt is to be there and not there at the same time. The spiral too is a form of balance and doubleness: does it move inward or outward? Clock-wise or counter-clockwise?  Spirals imply journeys, and Messager’s work reinforces that by dividing hers into progressive increments, like steps. The museum, though, allows one to walk that path in either direction. I walked mine counter-intuitively: starting at the top and walking down the spiral toward the center. On the way I ran into a colleague, walking the other way: from the inside out.  I saw the art backwards.

Does it matter? Is the center alpha or omega? If the spiral leads us toward the center then that center must matter. Is art, then, like a blow pop– hard on the outside, with a delicious treat in the middle? or is it more like a chocolate Easter egg — sweet on the outside and hollow? There were times I felt the exhibit was like the swirl of stars around a black hole: full of beautiful fragments without a center. Some pieces, once their conceit was explained, deflated. Other pieces felt full of presence: figures emerged mysteriously from behind red paint or assembled, like Messager, from pieces. In Janaina Tschape’s “Lacrimacorpus” a young woman in an empty room twirls in a circle. The wall text leans heavily, ponderously on meaning–mythology, Latin etymology, Buchenwald–but the girl spins on despite all the symbolism.  She’s just there. In “Autobiography” Rauschenberg recounts his life in words that turn in circles, spiraling outwards. The result is an uncanny fingerprint– forensic evidence of his uniquely individual presence and absence.

Robert Rauschenberg, "Autobiography"

Perhaps the spiral is an ear, not an eye. At the Guggenheim the music was commissioned by Susan Philipsz, who re-appropriated a song from a film version of Henry James’s story “A Turn of the Screw.” I heard a ghostly choir, but also a ringing phone. Is anybody home? What is the turn of the screw? A surprise, a realization, an arrival. It expresses that we learn as we turn in circles, going around and over and over again.  Think of this as my first circling around an idea.

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One Comment

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