Blissing Out

Anthony McCall, You and I, 2007; Horizontal (III) Installation view at Sean Kelly Gallery, New York, 2007. © Anthony McCall; Photography: Steven Harris; Courtesy: Sean Kelly Gallery, New York

During his appearance at our series Conversations with Artists on February 15, Anthony McCall elaborated on the experiential character of his “solid light” installations. At one point he said:

You are incorporated into [the installations], and they’re absorbing . . . people always reach out and touch these membranes because they’re very paradoxical . . . I don’t like the blissing out . . . it doesn’t need you to think, it just needs you to be there.

When I heard McCall say this, I couldn’t help feeling confused—disillusioned even. What did he mean by “blissing out”? Why didn’t he like it? Did this mean viewers like me couldn’t like it either?

Interaction with light is an experience necessary to fully understanding McCall’s enormous ‘solid-light’ installations. Often featuring huge three-dimensional cones, waves, and lines of light projected in darkened lofts or galleries, these installations transcend projectors and screens, playing with the dimensionality of light and blurring the distinctions between cinema, form, and space. It’s easy to lose yourself in such an atmosphere. At times it seems the installations are almost begging you to bliss out. So why must McCall tell us to control ourselves when it is so tempting to abandon our thoughts in his art?

Further into the conversation I found my answer. McCall explained that he avoids creating wholly immersive environments where the viewer is prone to unconscious pleasure. Meaning, he doesn’t believe art should overwhelm or sedate the mind.

“Blissing out” is not the wrong way to experience his art, but it is not a fulfilling way. It allows viewers to detach themselves from active aesthetic experience and understanding. If I’m in a position to lose myself in a McCall installation, I don’t need to think or be present; I wouldn’t need the art, and the art wouldn’t need me.

With this renewed perspective, I’m looking forward to March 28, when I’ll have the chance to hear from Janine Antoni, the second of three Conversations this spring. In her work, Antoni forces herself and the viewer to be physically engaged in art; there’s absolutely no opportunity for blissing out when Antoni’s around. Her performance-based pieces are more aggressive than Anthony McCall’s subtle, ethereal sculptures, and it will be interesting to weed out the similarities between these artists’ radically different approaches to engaging the viewer.

Madeline Bouton, Center for the Study of Modern Art Intern

Organic Juxtapositions: Wolfgang Laib

Director of the Center for the Study of Modern Art Klaus Ottmann pours milk onto Wolfgang Laib's Milkstone. Photo: Sarah Osborne Bender

Wolfgang Laib initially pursued a medical career path. He completed his medical studies, but  came to believe  that natural science could not define the world in what Laib believed was its true form. After leaving science, Laib first began to produce what he called “milkstones,” one of which was exhibited at the Phillips in March 2011. Laib creates elemental sculpture that captures organic substances such as milk and places them in the context of smooth, geometric shapes. The milk used in his milkstones, a substance that sustains  life, must be replaced ritualistically each day. Laib intentionally uses geometric shapes that have already been given meaning by a certain culture to create a fascinating juxtaposition of natural elements and man-made geometry. The reflection that occurs on a milkstone’s surface is entirely reliant on the natural light coming into the environment and the space that surrounds the art piece. Laib maintains that his art is not about nature but about the combination of organic forms, man-made objects, and how the viewer chooses to perceive them.

At this Wednesday’s Conversations with Artists talk with Laib, I am interested to hear his point of view on the ritual of replacing the milk and what he feels this might signify to the viewer. The artist works not only with milk but also with pollen, rice, and beeswax. Hopefully he will discuss the uniquely participatory aspect of his art.

Rachel Milkovich, Marketing Intern

Building a Better Umbrella

Acconci Studio Umbruffla: Renderings & Notes 2005. Kenny Schachter, Rove Projects, London.

This morning as I crossed Connecticut Avenue on my way in to work, the view of so many dull black umbrellas bobbing towards the Metro made me feel much more blue than the weather. Can’t we do better? Happily, Chief Curator Eliza Rathbone reminded us all in our morning meeting of Vito Acconci who participated in one of our Conversations with Artists in which he described his Umbruffla, a collapsible cocoon-like personal shelter that would protect not only from rain, but from the rest of the intruding environment. Ah, what a lovely sight a sidewalk-full of Umbrufflas would be!

Click below to hear Vito Acconci describe the Umbruffla, among many other projects and performances.

Our upcoming season of Conversations with Artists begins October 12 with Wolfgang Laib.