In Morag Keil’s installation “Moarg Keil,” a small group of mannequins are slouched on or near a subway bench, carrying duffels and draped in jackets. It’s a benign enough moment, a bit of commonplace Americana not far removed from George Segal’s bronze sculptures of drifters lingering around streetlamps. The more you look at “Moarg Keil,” though, the more it unsettles. A few of the mannequins are made of cloth; one is headless, its arms a pretzel, while a fully formed mannequin tries to grasp it as it seems to melt away. The whole time, a “kinetic sculpture” plugged into the ground, creates an unceasing, grating noise, like a skipping record – technology stuck in limbo. Completing the eerie installation is a video of customers blithely shopping in a clothing store, oblivious to the metronomic dreariness outside.
“Moarg Keil,” like the best pieces in the Museum of Contemporary Art’s recently opened “Love of Technology” exhibition in North Miami, looks almost banal at first, but the longer you encounter it, the more it burrows into your psyche, like aural and visual termites. This is a complement, of course. Most art that we consume, especially of the commercial persuasion, goes in one eye and out the other, forgotten as quickly as it is absorbed. The works in “Love of Technology” are certainly not commercial, and they’re largely unpretty, but they have a way transplanting their messages in you like subtle microchips – a fitting analogy for an exhibition whose overarching theme is about man’s relationship with an overly automated world.
The first exhibition curated by interim director Alexander Gartenfeld, who replaced the outgoing Bonnie Clearwater this summer, “Love of Technology” is an ambitious, multifaceted collection of largely emerging New Media artists whose connection to that overriding theme is at times tenuous, even nonexistent, if never less than provocative. It sprawls across all six galleries of the museum’s redesigned, industrial-chic space, one obtuse and unpredictable room yielding to another obtuse and unpredictable room.
The strongest – or if you will, the most literal – series related to our uncomfortable reliance on technology is by Berlin multimedia duo Calla Henkel and Max Pitegoff, a project that is part abstract photography, part renegade journalism. A dozen or more pieces of double-spaced paper are partially punched into the gallery walls, where visitors can, if they choose, read an entire narrative about Germany’s high-tech answer to California’s Silicon Valley written by the artists, who explored countless startups intended to make life easier while enslaving the masses with technological comforts. The article is supplemented by the artists’ photos – half-focused, shadowy shots snapped while lurking around the techy offices.
Speaking of Berlin, the German-based artist Oliver Laric’s video pieces, titled “Versions,” offer an equally potent assessment of technology’s ramifications. Her video essays, dense but well worth your time, feature montages, complete with jargony voice-overs, that address the unqualified repurposing of imagery – the conscious or unconscious mimicry of modern life that results in countless duplications. The artist seems to be wondering if anything can truly be trusted as original in a universe chockablock with certified copies, and it’s an unnerving thought.
Other pieces, while startling and impactful, answer the technology question more obliquely. For her untitled site-specific installation, Anicka Yi compiled hundreds – maybe thousands? – of local flowers, fried them all in tempura, and preserved them vertically under glass, creating a massive diorama on one of the gallery walls. This vast array of sepia stillness, which still emanates the scent of tempura, creates a different sensation when viewed from a considerable distance, where the fried flowers begin to resemble trees, four-legged animals and marine life: nature forever fragile, preserved in a state of near-decay. The artist creates a sense of symbolic inactivity – of organic life rendered endangered by, perhaps, technological sprawl.
Inactivity may also be a key word to comprehend Ben Schumacher and John Keenen’s untitled, life-sized boat model covered in shrink-wrap, which is then partially covered by rambling text about subjects such as survivalism. The boat is like taxidermy, more an arcane historical object than a contemporary mode of transportation, and its mini manifestos about seed and battery storage speak to that future possibility of a full-scale grid shutdown, where a retreat from technology will be inevitable.
Still other pieces seem anomalous, completely unrelated to the theme at hand. I won’t pretend to wax philosophically about how Andrea Zittel’s several installations or the large-scale, semiabstract paintings by Jason Galbut comment on technology; to me, they don’t, and in these moments, the exhibition feels a little unmoored.
By the end, however, it returns to fine form. The exhibition closes with New York-based Ian Cheng’s inventive live simulation “Thousand Islands, Thousand Laws,” a glitchy and stupefying video-game-like apocalypse. The length of the piece is described as “infinite duration,” because it’s literally a perpetual motion machine, motion-capturing live imagery and altering it in a remix of visual invention involving a human subject and a shrapnel-filled landscape of water, trees, office furniture and animals, some of which appear to be extinct species.
This is computer art of a level that looks both transcendently advanced and primitively 16-bit. It doesn’t say something about technology; it is the very manifestation of modern technological indulgence, a Facebook game running ad infinitum. It’s either scary or playful, or probably both, encapsulating our uneasy relationship with the devices that run our lives while we run them.
“Love of Technology” is on display through Nov. 3 at Museum of Contemporary Art, 770 N.E. 125th St., North Miami. Tickets are $5 general admission and $3 students and seniors. For information, call 305/893-6211 or visit mocanomi.org.