Insubstantial Pageant Faded Is the Best Show Western Bridge Has Ever Done
Many mornings this fall, an artwork can be found in the parking lot at Western Bridge, melting. The artwork is a cube of ice that's supposed to sit on a concrete pedestal, but people who get drunk at a bar nearby like to mess with it, so when gallery director Eric Fredericksen comes to work in the morning, he has to go pick it up and put it back. Every Thursday, before the gallery opens for the weekend, a guy with a large freezer brings by a new cube—they're 50 centimeters per side—which then has the same life cycle: crystalline and austere, misshapen and drippy, manhandled, erased, replaced.
Ice Cube (2005), by Berlin-based Jeppe Hein, is not the only work of art in Western Bridge's new show, Insubstantial Pageant Faded, that requires constant upkeep. Martin Creed's Work No. 312 (A lamp going on and off) (2003) is a nightlight plugged into the gallery wall that flicks on and off. It burns out, so there's a stash of bulbs in back. Jordan Wolfson's Nostalgia Is Fear (2004) is a Porsche with its headlights on. Fake snow falls on the car—a mixture of "fine" and "medium"—from a box suspended from the ceiling, which Fredericksen has to replenish with the assistance of a high-rising machine that he drives through the gallery. It's like the Zen of the Zamboni during a hockey game. A support system of quiet repetitive motions is part of the show.
This happens to be Western Bridge's best show ever. I say that not having seen River Styx or 19 Rainstorms, but I say it with confidence anyway. It's deserving of its Shakespearean title, taken from The Tempest's description of the impermanence of the world. Presented in the museumlike context of the collector's space, these objects will obviously be taken care of far into the future. But the objects themselves are needy, impermanent, anti-eternal—at least some of them. Others may not need regular care and feeding, but nonetheless they are based in human life time, rather than the forever time of art.
In a dark room nestled in the center of the building, a short film is playing of an old man holding a mirror up to his nose and breathing onto it. The two clouds of fog are proof that he's alive, except that the loop, called My Father Breathing into a Mirror (2005), is only a minute long, and artist Neil Goldberg's father died shortly after it was filmed. The only other things in this dark room are two thin metal tubes on the floor under a dim yellow light. The artist, Roger Hiorns, packed them with salt and water, and since the show began, they've oozed out crusty little puddles of saltwater, like wasted semen, or fog from the nostrils, or tears from a pair of crying eyes. This one small room is a rich exhibition in itself, where the plainness of each gesture amplifies the other.
In the back room of the gallery, which is truly blacked out, there's the mind-blowing Doubling Back (2003), Anthony McCall's gigantic moving sculpture made of air and light, rendered seemingly tangible by fog pumped in by machine. It is made by projecting an animated drawing of two interlocking sine waves onto a far wall; the shapes of projected light form tunnels in the room. The tunnels are there and not there—architectural sculptures that can be seen (and stood inside of) but not felt. (There is so much else to say about Doubling Back that I wrote an entire story about it in the September 27 edition of The Stranger.)
If Doubling Back is an experiment in presence through form, then Wolfson's Nostalgia Is Fear (the Porsche covered in snow) is an experiment in presence through time—it's a collage of time frames, really. The gallery lights are down, the car lights are on, and the radio is playing Lenny Bruce's legendary 1961 performance at Carnegie Hall. Snow is falling like crazy, just like it was the night of the performance, when the hall was packed despite the blizzard. You picture yourself sitting in that car, on that night, warming to that great show.
But this fantasy quickly comes undone. Bruce's obscenity-laced performance was not broadcast that night, or ever. And the old car has no tape deck or CD player, as you can see from the glowing red dash inside. The time references of the broadcast and the car falsify each other; the only thing that's "real" in time—the during-the-exhibition time—comes from the snow, which is false. It's busy forming a mountain you can sweep away.
In another installation in an upstairs room at the gallery is another monument made of floor sweepings: a small Plexiglas box full of sawdust set on a pedestal in the middle of the room. The shavings are from when Seattle artist Dan Webb carved a block of wood into a man's face, and then into advancing depictions of the man wasting away to nothing. The process was also captured in a series of photographs hung in a row that spans three of the room's four walls.
The piece is called Little Cuts, and it dates from last year, but this is the first time it has been seen in the round. It is both more peaceful and more devastating. And the orange wood of the carvings and white background of the photographs echo the wood and walls of the gallery, pulling Western Bridge into the piece's meditation on mortality.
There are other works in this show: Alex Schweder's video of a home blueprint overtaken by a plant; Rachel Harrison's photograph of someone trying to touch a manifestation of the Virgin on a New Jersey window; Julia Schmidt's painting of an X-ray of a woodworm-infested painting. Each of them, in their way, undermines the idea of a work of art as something whose value is derived from the fact that it might one day be dug up and seen as solid evidence of what we left behind.