In Feng Shui, a wind chime is a symbol of good fortune and peaceful spirits. One hangs inside the Paula Cooper Gallery in Chelsea. From a Miróesque, primary blue, steel top dangle silver, red, green, and black elements in the gently air-conditioned gallery space. But this image of peace is not what it seems: the wind chime is a mobile sculpture by Sam Durant titled Non-Vicious Circle (2014), and the silver parts that swing so serenely are composed of artillery shell casings. Durant’s sculpture lends its name to the summer group exhibition “Non–Vicious Circle” on view at Paula Cooper through August 16th, and showcasing work by Durant, Liz Glynn, Walid Raad, Kelley Walker, and Meg Webster. All of the artists deal with the concept of recurrence in history in individual ways, yet each work proposes an imagined ending to the contemporary world’s entrapment in a vicious circle.
Lebanese artist Walid Raad’s installation Section 88_Act XXXI: Views from outer to inner compartments (2010) is a perfectly Instagrammable installation, representing “doorways from the Metropolitan Museum of Art” as the show’s press release notes. The doors’ verges are painted a clean, bright white and the work is spotlighted to a dramatic effect that accentuates shadows and contrast. The viewer only later realizes that this effect is a shadow itself. Section 88_Act XXXI is an optical illusion, a flattened surface, 6.5 feet tall and 8.2 feet wide. Hanging in the air like an apparitional threshold, Raad’s work strips Western-style Middle Eastern art institutions of their meaning and substance, turning them into a shallow forced-perspective. With his current ongoing project Scratching on things I could disavow: A History of Art in the Arab World (2007–present), which includes Section 88_Act XXXI, Raad challenges the recent, meteoric emergence of the art market in the Arab region, along with its exorbitant politics, conflicts, billion dollar budget biennials and art fairs. The artist looks at a new museum’s opening and sees through its high-class etiquette, high-esteemed artists, and high-budget organization. Section 88_Act XXXI looks beyond the cultural surface by visually flattening and emptying the structure of its makeshift content, using The Met as its template being the epitome of a Western museum, as most contemporary art museums in the Middle East do.
In her artistic practice American artist Liz Glynn often looks into the cultural constructions of history, environment, and archaeology. For the spherical sculpture Eternal Return II (2017), she uses manufactured, man-made materials such as epoxy clay and acrylic in colors that recall Google’s familiar logo. Eternal Return II asserts a cyclical narrative of historical change and repetition all at once, and speaks almost directly to the other works in “Non–Vicious Circle.” Kelley Walker’s untitled, oversized recycling signs (2006 and 2015), adorned with repurposed posters and gold leaves, respond to Glynn’s work with imagery of the never-ending transfiguration of history and culture. Both works depict a spiral symbol, recalling the cyclical theme of the show: the Earth will continue to rotate; history will continue to be rewritten. Some materials will dissolve and others will remain.
In another room, five glass spheres compose Meg Webster’s Largest Blown Sphere (1987). Three feet each in diameter, the glass globes seem like over-expanded soap bubbles or shiny, translucent placentas. The circular imagery that connects the theme translates into Webster’s work as the cycle of life, death, and history once again. The circle rolls over within the show through Largest Blown Sphere that, as the exhibition text suggests, “often act as containers for living matter.”
A text accompanies Raad’s Section 88_Act XXXI, telling the story of a man trying to enter a modern art museum:
He simply feels that were he to walk in, he would certainly “hit a wall.”
On the spot, he turns to face the rushing crowd and screams: “Stop. Don’t go in. Be careful.”
Within seconds, he is removed from the site, severely beaten, and sent to a psychiatric facility.
These events will take place sometime between 2014 and 2024. We will certainly read in newspapers the following day the headline: “Demented Man Disturbs Opening—Claims World Is Flat.”
At the end of the film The Truman Show (1998), Truman Burbank, the movie’s protagonist, discovers that his world until that point has been an artificial one—he had been living inside a TV show controlled by showrunners and producers all his life. He sails in the morning sun into the horizon until his boat loudly crashes, and tears apart a drywall that’s painted to look like the sky. He slowly touches the hard, cold concrete with shaky fingers. Waad’s text evokes a similar feeling, because there just might not be a horizon in our future. And yet, one does feel hopeful after seeing “Non-Vicious Circle.” This is a space where artworks have transformed things: removing vicious circles of conflict, of war, of violence; and redefining them in virtuous circles that feed and interconnect but do not exacerbate one another. War artifacts meet the stylings of Miró and Calder to signal harmony; glass meets epoxy. A demented man disturbs an opening. The viciousness is still there, but the horizon feels less like drywall.
“Non–Vicious Circle” remains on view through August 16th, 2019 at Paula Cooper Gallery, 524 West 26th Street New York, NY.