Jack Straw Productions' New Media Gallery
Through Sept 30.
To a cursory eye and lazy ear, The Four Dignities conforms to the Jack Straw Productions' New Media Gallery's penchant for meditative installations intended to contain one, or maybe two or three, people. This is an underappreciated luxury. Instead of insisting on a limited, personal presence, many installations designed to immerse the public implicitly aim for a cattle call, pack 'em in maximum capacity. Yet Jack Straw's lavish allocation of space begets limitations. The gallery shares walls with a recording studio and an office. Inside, the sound never obtrudes, remaining confined to calm (and sometimes) mysterious tones and textures that blend snugly with the muted (and itself quite calming) traffic noise outside.
I was deeply disturbed by Rene Yung's The Four Dignities and reveled, albeit uneasily, in my discomfort. Stepping inside the dimly-lit chamber—shrouds of black cloth engulfing the walls make it difficult to discern the room's dimensions—I saw a squat black chair flanked by a V of suspended fluorescent lights. I had visited once before, but Max/MSP—the software that regulates, layers, and (for some elements) randomizes the sound—refused to recognize the hardware and stayed mysteriously silent.
On my second visit, everything was working, so I delved into the piece. Fringed with field recordings collected by composer Janice Giteck, the room simmered with outdoor sounds (passing traffic, airplanes overhead) almost indistinguishable from those outside the gallery. I heard murmuring crowds, perhaps recorded in a cafeteria, too. Sitting in the chair, I looked, listened, and got spooked.
In 1969, light sculptor Dan Flavin wrote about his pioneering work. "In time, I came to these conclusions about what I had found with fluorescent light, and about what might be accomplished plastically: now the entire interior spatial container and its components—wall, floor and ceiling, could support a strip of light but would not restrict its act of light except to enfold it."
Yung, a visual artist, writer, and designer, inverts Flavin's vision by deploying fluorescent bulbs visored with a narrow slit. Thus projected narrowly between two layers of gauzy, ivory-white curtain, the light builds a boundary between each of The Four Dignities' four stations—the aforementioned V is actually one side of an X—as if illuminating a sepulchral office-cubicle divider.
Directly above the chair hangs a speaker cone, naked like a light bulb in an interrogation room. Here, my own dimensions (I'm a tad under 6 feet 4 inches and weigh 225 pounds) made my discomfort acute as the speaker, just six inches above me, uttered fragments in a bureaucratically neutral yet sporadically comforting female voice, e.g., "touch ground/the edge of the chair" was overlapped by "friendly gossip/wagging tongue." Confronted with the intimidating aural equivalent of two-column blank verse hard justified to the right and left margins, I could do nothing but listen.
A baritone chime signals a change in the surrounding sound, but the voice fragments follow whether you go right to the cubicle with one speaker (presumably to stand under) or left to the pair of speakers (to walk by). Those speakers, also grimly dangling by bare cords, grazed mere inches above my head. The last cubicle has a comfortable, though narrow, mattress (for lying down) covered in spartan gray fabric. The voices continued ("ricochet of car alarms/drink a latte") at the head of the bed through a pair of black bookshelf speakers. My shins and ankles hung over the edge, but I'm used to that.
The Four Dignities, according to the artist's statement, is "...a secular interpretation of the Buddhist concept of mindfulness that extends to every aspect of living, embodied in the different positions we assume throughout the day: sitting, standing, walking, and lying down. Through sound, light, and space, the installation seeks to engage viewers in contemplation of these bodily states." Ostensibly, the installation is a failure; only the "lying down" area with the mattress feels conducive to any kind of serene contemplation.
Yet by gently tapping into incipient (and, alas, inevitable) traces of torture chic stimulated by the Abu Ghraib photos and discreetly nudging participants into the rudiments of 1970s masochistic performance art (such as Joseph Beuys's harrowing Coyote), The Four Dignities succeeds upon departure. In the light of the sun, I was doubly grateful to sit, stand, walk, and lie down comfortably when and where I pleased