Monday, July 6, 2009

Dan Graham: Beyond

Dan Graham's handsome show at the Whitney is truly a visual fiesta. First thing you see when you walk in the room is a dazzling glass pavilion titled Heart Pavilion. Two-way mirror panels arranged in the shape of a heart in plan, the pavilion plays with angles and curves, reflection and refraction. It's a simple geometry, but the distorting kaleidoscopic effects transgress the traditional spatial notions of in and out - it becomes strangely complex. The bodily involvement of the viewer puts the private self as part of a larger social context - layers of mirages of you and others. This installation occupies the center of the exhibition hall. It's almost a building within the building. The merger of sculpture and architecture disciplines is more explicitly pronounced in the slide show of Artists’ and Architects’ Work That Influenced Me, which includes architects such as Mies van der Rohe and Itsuko Hasegawa.

Compared to the glass pavilions, I actually found his early works much more thought-provoking. Some of them were even social experiments. Public Space / Two Audiences (1976) are two rooms divided by a huge glass panel. When views enter the rooms from two separate doors, they would watch the other room as if watching a TV channel. Performers become spectators and spectators are at the same time performers. A mirror wall on one far end doubles the space and put the audiences into directional confusion. The glass panel is sound-insulating, allowing no aural exchange between the rooms. People in the same room start to talk to each other, discussing the visual behaviors on the other side. The basic human desire of interconnectivity and instant feedback creates a collective identity in the same room - they act as a whole in response to the group in the other room.

My favorite piece is Opposing Mirrors and Video Monitors on Time Delay (1974). It's a room with a set of camera-monitor on either side. The mirrors give you real-time reflections of the situation while the closed-circuit video feeds on the monitor are on time delay. Again, the viewer takes the double role of performer and spectator. But this time you can interact with yourself. Some people would stand in front of the camera-monitor, wave to themselves, and watch themselves wave back in 5 seconds. Some others just simply watch the other side of the room and wait for the "just past" to show up on the reflection of the monitor. The opposing mirrors create an infinite overlapping of the present and the past. The real existence is trapped in the layers of reflections of the present, reproductions of the past, reflections of the reproductions of the past, and on. It almost gives you an impression of the deconstructivist Différance.

Some put Dan Graham along with Sol LeWitt and Dan Flavin, and call them "minimalist sculptors." I would prefer to put his works in the realm of "conceptual art." In fact, his art peices are minimal, but that just proves that profound concepts don't necessarily require complex medium. Simplicity can also convey sophistication, just as the show is titled: "Beyond."

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