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Husband-and-wife artists create installation pieces that interconnect while maintaining their individual distinctiveness

Husband-and-wife artists create installation pieces that interconnect while maintaining their individual distinctiveness

Andrew Kaufman and Donna Stack have named their joint show at Ruby Green “Synergy,” in reference to the influence they have on each other as husband and wife who share conversations, ideas and space. The word itself comes with baggage, having been adopted and corrupted by corporate America. Corporations invoke it in supposedly “greater than the sum of its parts” cases where two companies (or products or anything else) come together. In fact, the word usually comes up in cases where two things that don’t work in tandem at all are thrust together for nonproductive purposes, such as feeding the owners’ egos. The AOL-Time Warner merger was supposed to take advantage of synergies. It turned out there were none.

So when I see a word like “synergy” used as an exhibit title, one thought is that those involved had to have something, and they just settled on this. Well, I don’t want to get further into the semantics and merits of this word, but Kaufman and Stack’s work at Ruby Green demonstrates a remarkable amount of continuity and interconnection while maintaining variety and distinctiveness among individual works. The show consists of five installation pieces, three by Stack and two by Kaufman; four include video elements. Each work does something a bit different, but there’s significant continuity across them.

“Three Marriages,” by Stack, consists of a wall framed out in plain lumber that closes off one corner of the front gallery. Behind the wall, two video monitors show a man and a woman, the artist’s parents, separately but simultaneously answering questions from their daughter about the events around their marriage. (The husband/father is a white Southerner, the wife/mother is from Korea.) Their commentaries deal a lot with the difficulties involved—disapproval from families, problems with visas, etc.

A mirror fills the space on the enclosure wall between the two monitors. The mirror is actually a one-way mirror, and viewers on the gallery side of the wall can look through it at the person inside looking at the monitors. The space is much like an interrogation room—in addition to the one-way mirror, the inside walls are finished in plain white drywall, and a low-hanging fluorescent light panel casts a harsh light. The space inside the enclosure is the brightest spot in the whole gallery, otherwise dimly lit.

The sound on the video monitors was set low when I saw it, so I had to lean in to hear. A piece of plastic that serves as a magnifying element has been mounted in front of each monitor, but you have to position yourself at just the right height to look through it straight on; from any other angle, the plastic plates distort the images of the speakers. I’m 6 feet tall, and the monitors sit about five feet from the ground, so I had to bend down noticeably to get the angle right.

The piece controls the viewer’s body in several ways: first by bringing him or her into the piece, then by forcing the viewer to lean and crouch to see and hear it. Anyone on the other side of the one-way mirror sees all of your efforts to get the right viewing angle, so you become part of the work.

An obvious question about the piece is what are the three marriages? It could be the three perspectives of husband, wife and daughter. However, there are other marriages in the mix. The mother talks about her grandmother’s arranged marriage back in Korea. There is also the artists’ marriage. When you start thinking about it, you see marriages everywhere.

This piece disorients and reorients on several levels. On the one hand, it embodies the confusion a daughter experiences as she tries to understand her parents’ story. The narrative is barely audible and nearly impossible to sort out, with simultaneous versions running constantly. On a formal level, the piece takes the viewer out of him- or herself—by making physical demands that involve surrendering some free will to the artist, and through the links of associations set in motion by the title’s open-ended referents.

Stack’s other large piece, “Mama Dyce,” also makes physical demands on the viewer and integrates the viewer into the work. It’s another architectural piece: She built an open wooden structure that traces the frame of a small building and lined it with a cloth enclosure that looks like a sheer tent or a bed canopy. The form is graceful but also a bit hard to make out, like a structure from a dream or fairy tale. There’s one opening in the cloth, and viewers go inside and sit on a pillow in the center of the floor. It turns out the pillow is cast from concrete. Above the viewer, a monitor pointing downward (therefore only visible to someone inside the tent) shows video of a woman, presumably the artist, floating underwater. The effects of the water continually distort her face. She might be drowning, or the water might provide a protective layer that separates her from the viewer, keeps her always past arm’s length and a bit out of focus.

“Containment/ Contamination,” by Kaufman, shows video of an African American man drinking water from a glass and spitting it out into an empty glass. Next to the monitor sits a stack of glasses, upside down on a rubberized surface; each glass encloses a bit of water. The man in the video had AIDS, so the piece forces you to think about that water. The video subject might have spit the water into the glasses. Is the water clean or infected? There’s no way to know.

Kaufman’s “Samenessnessing” consists of 14 shopping carts carrying small video monitors pointing downward, each cart draped in a translucent plastic cover. Thanks to the orientation of the monitors and the intervening plastic sheeting, you cannot see what, if any, image is on the screen, just a cold bluish glow. The carts and their protected contents seem to have some sort of bureaucratic purpose, vaguely medical, combining uniformity and technology to uncertain ends. The piece also has a sound element, a man and woman speaking snippets of conversation, heavily fraught but decontextualized phrases like “be careful,” “goodnight,” “you’re gorgeous,” “no” and “I hate.”

The carts fill an entire section of the gallery from wall to wall, so you have to pass through the piece, walking between the carts and stepping on power and video cords. Once inside the work, it gets hard to know for sure where the voices are coming from; there is one ceiling-mounted speaker, but it seems that some of the sound may come from the carts as well. The sound itself defines the extent of the work as much as the physical elements, so that you have a sense of being inside the space claimed by the voices.

Taken together, the five pieces cohere. One continuity comes from use of similar elements, particularly the video. They also use a similar palette—whites, grays, translucent and transparent elements, none of the spectrum colors. And three of the works ask the viewer to go into them—”Three Marriages,” “Mama Dyce” and “Samenessnessing.”

The work fully packs the Ruby Green space, but not to overcrowded. Even so, each remains distinct, physically and thematically well-defined. Since several of the pieces require viewers to intermingle with them, an important way of perceiving them is from inside. This means that the pieces do not lack for breathing room, since you don’t stand back and contemplate them from a distance.

Stack and Kaufman have detailed the works extremely carefully. In “Three Marriages,” Stack installed a handrail on the observer side of the one-way mirror, to make it clear that you can stand there and watch what happens on the other side. The electrical cords in “Samenessnessing” form graceful curving patterns on the ground.

An extremely important commonality is the way the works disorient and reorient the space and pull on the bodies of viewers. Many religions hold that movement and body position have an influence on the soul. Yoga uses the practice of postures, or asanas, to align and balance the chakras, thereby setting the stage for integration of mind, body and breath. To some Christian writers and denominations, body position—kneeling, bowing and clasping hands—has significance in devotion, worship and prayer. (C.S. Lewis’ narrator-devil Screwtape says, “At the very least [humans] can be persuaded that the bodily position makes no difference in their prayers; for they constantly forget, what you must always remember, that they are animals and that whatever their bodies do affects their souls.”) Works like Stack’s and Kaufman’s installations make us conscious of our bodies in relation to the artworks, and they prompt us to engage in a slow-motion dance as we move up to, into and around the work. While not part of a conscious system of spiritual practice, this movement can shake something loose that creates a heightened awareness of the task of perception—that perception is something we actively do with our bodies. This brings us closer to the artwork, because our experience as a viewer invokes our own physicality and links it to the physicality of the art. We find ourselves dancing with the ideas embodied by these strange constructions that emerge in our midst.

If in Houston

If you happen to be traveling to Houston, Texas, in the near future, the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston has a major exhibit and installation by Matthew Ritchie called “Proposition Player.” Up through March 14, the show combines many elements into a single work that makes audacious arguments about the underlying structures of the universe. Ritchie crosses concepts from cosmology, atomic physics, biology and chemistry with human systems like mythology and card games, and with aspects of daily human life. All of this he translates into visual structures in various media that reflect and extend each other. The results show a deep sense of wonder about the world and excitement in uncovering its patterns. For information, visit www.camh.org.

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