Ghosts in the Machine” at the New MuseumArt Review
“Ghosts in the Machine,” on view until September 30th at the New Museum, is an exhibition of art inspired and informed by technology. The exhibition focuses particularly on the work coming out of the decades when computers began being developed for popular use. The exhibition includes artwork from around the world in a wide range of media; painting, sculpture, installation, film, and drawing are all well- represented. There are also non-art objects like books and replicas of historical inventions.
A central theme running through the exhibition is the healing potential of technology. On display is a 2012 replica of an Orgone Energy Accumulator, a 1940 invention by scientist Wilhelm Reich who believed that a universal atom-like unit called the “orgone” is what makes up all bodies and substances. The Accumulator is essentially a metal-lined box sized to fit a human body and will allegedly harvest the orgone energy in the atmosphere, healing the patient’s body and improving their libido. Unfortunately, the Accumulator at the New Museum is not for use. The FDA outlawed Reich’s invention in 1954 after determining that the device was ineffectual and its claims were medically unsubstantiated.
Emma Kunz’s mandala-like color pencil drawings are a standout in the show. Kunz worked between 1938 until her death in 1963, creating intricate drawings with the use of a pendulum that she believed could divine the future and heal the sick. The drawings, compelling in their color and symmetry, are easily mistaken for the work of a hip young artist today but are made infinitely more interesting by their purported value as healing devices. Several computer-generated drawings by artists George Nees, Peter Milojević and Alan Mark France among others, have similar symmetrical and geometric structures but used computer programs to generate the image. For example, Milojević for example used Fortran, a now-ancient programming language, to write a program which generated image of realistic-looking plants and trees in Flora NT (1969).
Some sculptural works seem like they are fit for display in the planetarium of a science museum—or, alternatively, a home lighting store. German artist Otto Piene’s spherical moving machines emit light through perforated surfaces at timed intervals, creating intricate projections on the surrounding walls. With titles like Electric Anaconda and Light Ballet on Wheels (both 1965) these pieces can at first glance be dismissed as a set of gaudy lamps, but the hypnotic environment created by the patterned movement of light inevitably seduces the spectator into a trance, much like the kind Piene himself envisioned “healing” the spectator. Similarly, Spazio Elasticity, a 1968 installation piece by Italian artist Gianni Colombo initially reads as a cheesy room-scale rendition of a glow-in-the-dark three dimensional grid. However, once the viewer steps inside of the i nstallation he or she has the uncanny experience that the grid is actually moving, closing in on their body and expanding back out again.
Other notable kinetic works include Floats (1970) by Robert Breer: two motorized resin sculptures vaguely resembling gigantic phalli, which move slowly about the museum floor, intermingling with visitors and sometimes humorously blocking their way into the next gallery. Blue Sail (1964-65), a Hans Haacke sculpture consisting of a sheet of blue chiffon billowing over a fan, is beautiful to look at—one of the last such works that Haacke made before he denounced air as being ineffective against politics.
The show includes works by some big- name contemporary American artists: there is a Jeff Koons Hoover vacuum ready-made and a Robert Smithson mirror sculpture, but these feel tangential to the exhibition’s purpose. The real pleasure here lies in the opportunity to look at many more lesser-known artists, whose work in a contemporary context risks being seen as being too dated, niche, or decorative. A casual survey of the artistic movements represented in “Ghosts” would just as soon yield a list of the ones taken the least seriously today: op art, kinetic art and computer-generated art. Yet through this exhibition, these movements are reanimated and shown to be relevant to today’s artistic discourse.
Notably absent from the exhibition is any mention of the Internet and of that art which relies heavily on its existence. Following the tried-and-true adage of “don’t bite off more than you can chew,” the curators of “Ghosts in the Machine” have smartly limited this show’s scope, perhaps reserving a spot for a similar survey of Internet- and iPhone-inspired art a few decades into the Museum’s future. Until then, it will be interesting to ponder what will become of our Macbooks, iPhones, and Kindles years from now; what relics they will turn into and what cultural artifacts they may inspire.