Werner Reiterer: Raw Loop
The idea of the art museum as a temple of aesthetics where pilgrims come to revere and contemplate is so deeply rooted in our culture that visitors to contemporary art museums are often taken aback when they are asked, by an artwork or an exhibition, to have fun. After all, look no further than the imposing exteriors of some of the world's finest art museums: the Met, the Prado, the British Museum, made to evoke literal temples like the Parthenon and Pantheon. They provide visible confirmation that these institutions are sites for veneration.
When it comes to appreciating art of the 21st century, such solemn reverence has largely gone by the wayside. Artists explore themes like play, irony, technology and interactivity. Museums reach out to new audiences with hands-on activities and attempt to compete in an entertainment-saturated culture. Visitors, as a result, may find that a pilgrimage to the local art museum no longer comes with a shhh, please! but rather an invitation to explore, participate and laugh.
The current exhibition featured at USF's Contemporary Art Museum is a case in point. Raw Loop, a display of sculptures by Austrian artist Werner Reiterer, functions as a series of droll jests. Low-tech to the eye, motion sensors or text commands intermittently invite visitors to contribute their own input, often with surprising results. Organized by curator Julien Robson, formerly of the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, and previously exhibited only in that city, it's the first U.S. solo show for the artist.
What makes an encounter with Reiterer's sculptures memorable is the deadpan humor and mischievousness with which he approaches interactivity. Rather than the facile button push, visitors to Raw Loop are asked several times to perform actions that resonate with mildly titillating subversion in the gallery context. Take the piece called Breath: Its main visual component is a sheet of paper stuck to the wall bearing the instructions, "Yell as loud as you can, now!" Or Life counts Death, a massive white box with a drum pedestal attached to it. I'll refrain from revealing exactly what transpires when visitors muster the temerity to engage with either piece, but the results are probably not what you'd expect. When a group of visitors triggers multiple sculptures at once, the outcome can border on cacophony.
"It will become a really noisy show," Reiterer explains. "I like it, personally, because the different pieces — they develop their own life there. You can't control it."
In some cases, participation isn't exactly consensual — a reflection of the artist's wry sense of humor. Take No Title (the name of more than one piece featured in the exhibition), a wall text that reads "Breathe deeply and carry the air into the next room." Though I suppose visitors could choose to forgo taking a deep breath per se, the absurd injunction is on some level impossible not to obey. (And for conceptual art buffs, its paradoxically serious whimsy may evoke the dadaist gestures of Marcel Duchamp — particularly his readymade, 50cc of Paris Air, curator Robson says.) The same, ever-so-slightly disturbing (or disturbed) trickery plays out in another piece called No Title, this one a green barrel labeled "laughing gas" that emits steam; the artist swears that its "placebo effect" works 99 percent of the time.
Reiterer's other creations range from the mysterious to the charmingly weird: a pile of bubble gum chewed by the artist (which he describes as a "sculptural transformation of language"); a sculpture in the form of a hooded body slouched against the gallery wall that periodically appears to animate and breathe; and a selection of his surreal, cartoon-like drawings. Visitors may find themselves alternately delighted and perplexed — and that elusiveness is the core of the exhibit's seduction.
Perhaps strangest of all the sculptures is a curiously naturalistic-yet-surreal rendering of the artist's head emerging from a bathtub. (While otherwise lifelike, the head bends on an elongated neck and glows an overheated orange color while steam escapes from its ear.) The sight evokes a cocktail of dissonant reactions: repulsion, laughter, commiseration, curiosity and suspicion.
Visitors may be forgiven if they can't decided whether Reiterer is laughing with them or at them — and another piece, Come closer to leave, won't alleviate the confusion. As people approach a large bank of speakers in the corner of the gallery, motion sensors trigger a soothing male voice (in fact, the artist's) enticing them to approach. If you dare, you'll be rewarded by a gruff command to do the opposite. But as you turn tail to depart, the voice's mood will change again on a dime — and back again, depending on where you hover. Only a hair's-breadth of difference separates come-on from conflict.
That's why one might be tempted to read Reiterer's Raw Loop exhibition as a metaphor for the absurdity of life. Without knowing what to make of much of it, you're pretty sure you had a good time.