Timewave Zero/ The Politics of Ecstasy

Grazer Kunstverein, Graz, Austria

Vidya Gastaldon's Hole in my Brain (2001), a faint graphite drawing with occasional colour accents, was the first work you came upon in 'Timewave Zero / The Politics of Ecstasy', curated by Lionel Bovier and Jean-Michel Wicker. A large wobbly bubble occupies the centre of the drawing, surrounded by a delicate and delirious fairytale involving a mountain-top castle with onion domes, a graveyard, a Russian doll, a caterpillar, jewels, coral and abstract cubes. Set among these was a further sub-species of symbols - a horseshoe, a padlock, a rose, a seahorse and a leopard - in the form of lucky charms dangling from a bracelet. Everything in this bewildering mélange is about the same size in what may be a desert, an Alpine mountain range or the bottom of the sea. Formal similitude, allied to an enchanting curlicue drawing style, is the connecting principle between, say, soap bubble, dead dandelion's head, jellyfish and heavenly orb.

Gastaldon's drawing stood as a map or model for the entire exhibition, though there was more imagery in this one drawing than in the other eight pared-down works put together. On a formal level 'Timewave Zero' was a carefully measured sequence of circles and squares, spheres and cubes, with a rhythm that had the effect of dissolving the physical entity of each work into its neighbour: John Tremblay's silver canvas filled with bubbly black circles, Watery Domestic (1993), blurred with the glass beads hanging like crystal balls in Lisa Beck's installation Influx 2000/Pseudoisochromo #1 (Spiral) (1997), for example, and with the almost equally abstract foamy bubbles passing over hopscotch markings in Charles and Ray Eames' film Blacktop: A Story of the Washing of a School Play Yard (1952); Angela Bulloch's mesmerizing light cube, which changed colour slowly and randomly, seemed to lend its neighbour, a petrol blue 'plank' piece by UFO watcher John McCracken, the quality of an illusion; and the object-hood of Isa Genzken's three mirror-tiled towers was undermined by the reflections of everything else around them. Together the works seemed to be situated in some kind of special somewhere, a place as hard to locate as the realm described in Gastaldon's drawing. It could have been a city, to judge from Genzken's towers and other partial allusions to architecture. If you fell under the spell of Beck's giant sand pit, which stretched across the middle of the space beneath her cascading glass beads, or Jack Goldstein's film of LED-like pinpricks of red light delineating the arabesque trajectory of a man leaping from a diving board, the space began to recall a city on a beach (Rio or Miami maybe). Wherever (and whenever) we were, the scene evoked a retro-Modernist reconciliation of the organic and the man-made somewhere by a cool ocean under a hot, cloudless sky.

The space between and around these images and objects vibrated with the electronic ambience of the soundtrack composed by Sidney Stucki especially for the exhibition. Its inclusion proposed synaesthesia as a means of experiencing and comprehending this elliptical show. The way painting, sculpture, collage, drawing and film occupied the same immaterial plane in 'Timewave Zero', though strictly speaking not synaesthetic, suggested something pretty close to it. With Stucki in the mix, vision and sound began really taking on each other's characteristics: the relationship of one object to the next seemed almost musical in its ambience, while the soundtrack was delivered through orb-like speakers whose geometry was as particular as that of the art objects around it. The soundtrack's samples of birdsong, waves and thunder took on art's conventional job of representing the landscape, thus underscoring the synaesthetic effect.

Very little in the exhibition represented drugs - or the experience of taking them - as directly as one would expect from a show with 'Ecstasy' in its title: Brion Gysin's Dreamachine (1961, re-made in 2001), as a forerunner of lava lamps and other Head Shop paraphernalia, got closest to fitting the bill, ahead of McCracken's 1988 plank piece Hopi, which may just make one consider the contents of a Native American's pipe. 'Timewave Zero' gave drugs a whole new abstract vocabulary, substituting an uncanny, unstable variant of Minimalism for the usual decorative and symbolic excess of psychedelia. If this were a dance compilation it would be a chill-out album.

It's tempting to attribute all this to the differences between the drug that shaped the image-repertoire of pop culture in the 1990s (Ecstasy), and the drug that did the same job very differently in the 1960s (LSD), but this still doesn't account for the exhibition's ability to teleport the viewer to that earlier era. Put simply, the show felt like looking at Donald Judd on Ecstasy rather than watching the Grateful Dead on Acid: imagine Judd's 'Primary Structures' in Marfa hovering off the ground, their edges softening a little, their matter-of-factness traded in for cosmic vibes. With this exhibition, as in the collaborative works of Wicker and Gastaldon in general, Bovier and Wicker set about creating hallucinations from the super-reasoned syntax of Minimalism. 'Timewave Zero' represented a moment when cubes turned into spheres, the micro and macro occupied the same plane, International Style architecture emerged from deserts and mountain ranges, and we were unsure if we were patrolling a reef or had our head in the clouds.

Issue 65

First published in Issue 65

March 2002

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