Michele Blondel: Precious Fins

at Vedanta V-2, through June 10

Christopher Furman: I Work and…

at Wood Street, through June 10

By Fred Camper

Many of the greatest paintings are said to create a world. But installations often almost engulf the viewer, who can feel not only lost in the work but somehow incriminated as well. Smelling the fragrant fluids–rose water and orange water–in Michele Blondel’s installation Precious Fins at Vedanta V-2 involves the viewer on a more bodily level than merely standing and looking. And the incrimination begins even before one enters the main room. On either side of a short corridor Blondel has hung a sort of fantasy figure in white glass–a bra or breasts (the ambiguity seems intended) on top and a protruding erect penis or dildo below. Choosing to pass through these mini androgynes indicates some degree of acceptance of them.

Inside, one is surrounded. There are objects on the walls, on the floor next to the walls, and in a huge circle in the middle of the room, and every corner has a video monitor, each of the four playing its own tape continuously; the light from them is an active, projective force. Looking back down the corridor, it seems there’s no escape. How much this installation depends on a feeling of enclosure became apparent when a door leading to a gallery back room opened a few times during one of my visits, disrupting the work’s spell.

The pieces in Precious Fins are also self-contained works, titled and priced individually, and some of them are grouped into mini installations. “Legend of the Mermaid” consists of four green glass pieces: Mermaid Fins, a mermaid tail; Mermaid Shell, a smaller concave piece of hollow glass; Unicorn, a long horn with a textured surface; and Breasts, two cups. All are set on a low platform; the shell is distinctly vulvalike, the horn phallic, and the whole ensemble suggests some myth, but which one? On the opposite wall, the amber-colored “Legend of the Unicorn” includes some of the same objects; though there’s no mermaid shell, Unicorn Shell is almost identical to it. Among the objects on the floor are “Cigar,” three red glass shapes of different sizes; “Vulva vase,” of provocatively deep red glass; more shells and fins; and assorted colored glass balls.

These objects don’t have single meanings. Sometimes they resemble penises and vulvas, but there are also colored glass vessels of aromatic liquids, real shoes with dildolike glass “shoe trees” in them, and various articles of cloth and paper. Everything-but-the-kitchen-sink installations are pretty common today, and the weak ones sometimes seem mere replications of the artist’s studio or bedroom mess. What makes Precious Fins at once disturbing and successful is its combination of vividness and restraint: fairly inclusive, it still manages to focus on a recognizable theme–transformation.

Blondel, who was born in Paris in 1948 and who lives in France and New York today, was raised as a Catholic, and critics have called many of her earlier installations conflations of the erotic and the ecclesiastical. Precious Fins was inspired in part by time she spent working and studying in India; rose water and orange water are used both in Hindu ceremonies and in Indian homes. One of the items on the floor is a sari; another, Silk Tent, is a giant slightly creepy garment stitched together from many pieces of Indian silk. Papiers Froisse, the only object framed and hanging on the wall, consists of crumpled pieces of dyed rice paper arranged in a grid. The bright colors of the silk, the rice paper, and many of the glass sculptures come from a recognizably Indian palette.

Most of the objects here are two or three things (but not more) at once: bra, breast, and abstract glass shape; unicorn horn, phallus, and elegantly textured object. Just as involving as the act of smelling is the process of vacillating between different readings of Blondel’s objects. By all accounts impressed with the idea of transubstantiation as a child, she’s evidently still fascinated by the possibility that something might have two or more identities at once.

Blondel also makes successful use of video, which poses problems for most installation artists: it offers a moving image while the installation’s other elements are usually static, and video’s electronic flickering is very different from the usual incandescent light or daylight of galleries. More often than not video seems unintegrated and mannered. But the imagery in Blondel’s four tapes often relates directly to her objects. Tiles seen through water recall her fluids and the transparency of her glass sculptures. Images of a flesh orange jellyfish on a beach emphasize its translucency, echoing glass of similar colors nearby. More generally, the malleability of video images parallels the ambiguous identities of her glass sculptures: both seem to be about imaginatively reshaping colored light.

A tape of a bug whose damaged wings prevent it from flying interjects the theme of failure and underlines the viewer’s awareness that, despite their suggestiveness, these sculptures don’t really “become” anything. Blondel makes no attempt at trickery: the gallery is brightly lit, and there are no trompe l’oeil effects. In what might be an implied critique of religious transcendence, the artist leaves us sure we’re looking at colored glass.

Christopher Furman’s most recent installation–I Work and… at Wood Street–is in a much larger room than Blondel’s but consists of only four elements. Born in Washington, D.C., in 1965, Furman’s lived in Chicago for several years. His charmingly clunky installations are typically about success and failure at once; here he offers an almost austere, slightly frightening vision of meaningless repetition. The most elaborate of the four elements includes a mechanism whose turning wheels make long arms punch out a short tune on a piano; the composition was inspired in part, he told me, by Erik Satie’s piano music.

Like Blondel, Furman provides a bit of drama as the viewer enters. If the room has no visitors, it’s completely dark, but when someone comes in, an infrared sensor turns on various lights and devices and the piano starts playing. Three slides mounted on a rotating device endlessly project the three words of the title, “I work and I work and I work and…,” on the wall opposite the piano. Near the projected words is a small plastic figure turning his head in two different kinds of back-and-forth movements; near him is a flapping pair of wings.

Furman makes most of the machinery visible, which contributes to the work’s charm. You can see exactly how the rotating motor activates the piano keys and how another motor drives the flapping wings. The complex movements of the turning head are activated by a large eccentric cam visible under it–but this machinery also contains many wheels and gears whose turning serves no function. (“I wanted to convey the idea of a complex machine trying to render a simple, elegant movement,” Furman told me.)

The large size of the space is important: by locating the elements of I Work and… at opposite ends of the room, and by having the projected light from his slides cross much of its length, Furman incorporates empty space in his piece. And it’s designed so that the best angle from which to view the piano also includes a view of the other three parts.

Furman’s repetitions focus attention on details, illuminating their beauty, and suggest hopelessness as well. The musical phrase he’s devised is effective in its bluntness but hardly great music. If it were, it would probably detract from the work, taking the viewer out of it to some other place. Instead dissonant chords accompany a few notes again and again and again, while an automaton turns his head and the disembodied wings–which might otherwise suggest escape–flap to no purpose. Furman makes it easy to see how his mechanisms work because, like Blondel, he wants to deny transcendence. He shows instead that it’s possible to use objects emotionally, suggestively, and still present them clearly as objects.