Sunday, October 08, 2006

Ingrid Bachmann: Symphony for 54 Shoes (Distant Echoes)

Neutral Ground
September 9 - October 6, 2006

Rounding the corner and walking into the main space at Neutral Ground, one is greeted first by a large, clumsily diagrammatic line drawing, mural-like, of two shoes hovering over two pairs of springs. To the right of this drawing is a row of shoes upon similar springs, mounted on wooden planks two or three feet from the floor. The row wraps around the space and the shoes are all connected via wires to a control box to the extreme left of the row. There are 52 shoes, although one may assume the number is inconsequential as the artist’s statement, indeed the title of the piece, lists 54.

The shoes do not move at first, or at least that was my experience. I wandered about the space for a short while before gallery staff came to switch the work on, at which point the shoes began to make clacking sounds in an apparently random sequence. The shoes themselves are fitted with tapping plates, causing them to make these clicking and smacking sounds--which fill the gallery, provided the work is powered up--when they are moved suddenly by the small pistons that support them. The shoes are varied, as some are workboots, some are loafers, some are pumps and some are even actual tap shoes, and they are arranged in pairs.

Considering the variance of the shoes, I was aware that they were all of Western origin--there are no “ethnic” shoes here, unless caucasian in its broadest sense can be said to be an ethnicity. They don’t, however, indicate much about their former owners, except perhaps through their varying degrees of wear, giving an indication as to the nature of their former inhabitants only by their condition. And if the shoes themselves are characters, this piece is a bit like being in an asylum. The inhabitants here have only two states--agitated and comatose.

As they clattered, I began also to wonder if my presence or motion was triggering them (aside from the initial triggering of the staff to activate the piece). After noticing no difference in their motion whether I was moving or static, I realized this was not an interactive work but a process that simply goes ahead regardless of its viewership. What is made obvious, however, through the exposure of wires, is the fact that power and information (in the form of instructions) is being sent to these shoes. This is emphasized further by the fact that the control box makes a noise almost as loud as the shoes, and certainly more regularly, as its relay switches click on and off internally.

If this work is to be read biologically, then it suggests a model of a nervous system, with the brain clicking away to make its limbs dance. The instructions are fired from the central controller to the connected muscles, making them move or remain static. This, however, would be a somewhat grim view of the human condition, because it would suggest that we are then only responses to switches. These switches, further, are only internal and cannot be affected by other organisms, other presences, and can occupy only two polar states.

If it is to be read spiritually, then the control box is a sort of animator, allowing the ghosts of the shoes’ inhabitants to “act” even after they have disappeared. They cannot communicate clearly with the living, but they can perform the pedal equivalent to moaning or knocking over a vase. Neither can we interact with them, as we can attend or leave but not affect the tapping itself.

These are, I think, possible readings. But if this work, on the other hand, is to be read technologically--and this is unfortunately the only reading the artist’s statement suggests--then it is not a metaphor or a model for anything but is simply a bit of an electronic trick. It may be an interesting piece of engineering... but engineering alone does not an effective artwork make. It is also an elaborate noisemaker; a computerized musical toy that no one wants to listen to. I presume that the irregular repetition of noises is the reason for the gallery staff to have this work powered down until a viewer arrives. While it may be understandable on some level--consider sharing an office with a perpetual tapdancer, or 52 irregular tapdancers--one wonders about the efficacy of annoyance as an aesthetic strategy. Put more practically, if the staff are to be the mediators and keepers of an installation, why present this work if the staff can’t tolerate it?

--Lee Henderson

click to go to Neutral Ground's exhibition page


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