at the Museum of Contemporary Art

On the third floor of the Museum of Contemporary Art, in the Manilow Gallery through February 4, is an environmental installation consisting of copper and steel plates and wires, magnets, and drawings on silk. This work, by the Brazilian artist Tunga, is simultaneously smooth and rough, sprawling and erect, aggressive and poised. Three seven-foot-high constructions about 20 feet apart are made of copper and steel plates sandwiched together by the force of hundreds of pieces of shattered ceramic magnets. Running from one plate-and-magnet sandwich to the next are thousands of strands of copper wire; they are braided at first but gradually become loose and wavy like yards of golden hair streaming across the carpeted floor. The whole thing looks like an experiment gone haywire, the work of a crazed scientist searching for the unimaginable. The materials and imagery are unexpected; the sharp and abrasive surfaces are unnerving; the piece is shrewdly loaded with contrasting forms, colors, and symbols. However effectively it manipulates the viewer, though, it is unyielding of its true intentions, if it has any.

Unlike flat objects hung on a wall or sculptures placed in a room, environmental installations must be inhabited to be appreciated. The components in an installation shape and define the space they consume, leading the viewer to a set of perceptions that is (or should be) unique. In short, the piece creates an environment. To experience it fully one should not only scrutinize the elements themselves but also be aware of how it feels to move through the work. The viewer must become aware of how things look from different angles, whether or not they line up, and how separate things become one when foreshortened. As the position of the viewer changes, so do the relationships of the objects to each other and to the viewer. The spatial awareness that we take for granted in getting around town becomes a primary form of observation in experiencing this kind of artwork. Tunga’s environment skillfully agitates the viewer in a subtle yet consistent way, stimulating a form of cautious but interested perusal.

On entering the installation the viewer passes between a dark braid of iron wire on the floor and a furry, menacing-looking club leaning against the wall, fat end up. The club is made entirely of broken ceramic magnets, and its fur is iron filings that cling to and cover the shape, revealing all the jumbled and confused magnetic fields and making the shattered chips look beastly. Leaning with its bottom end unreasonably far from the wall, the club looks like it could be knocked down with a little nudge. A baseball bat in the corner of a closet always stands with the fat end on the floor: this position is the most stable, and it’s natural to pick up the bat by its handle, not the business end. Tunga’s club is not at rest; it is upright and poised as if ready to fulfill some agenda.

Farther into the space, the plate-and-magnet sandwiches stand with exposed edges cut like the teeth of a comb. Their surfaces are covered with broken magnet pieces, which look like barnacles on the hull of a ship. Between sandwiches, the hairlike wire flows in an unkempt mess, a stream too wide to step over. From front to back the whole configuration gets closer and closer to the wall, leaving the viewer a smaller and smaller space to walk in. It is uncomfortable to pass others in this situation; even where there is ample room, people tend to go through in single file. When one gets to the narrow point at the end it feels like a trap; the wires look like snares; and it seems that the slightest disturbance could make one of the plate-and-magnet sandwiches tip over, with the others following like dominoes.

In any museum or gallery installation one is careful when moving about, especially if there is a crowd. No one wants to be responsible for disrupting the hushed viewing atmosphere or for damaging valuable objects. But Tunga’s installation demands a different degree of caution, motivated by the vulnerability of flesh in the presence of heavy, precariously poised, sharp-toothed things. Of course it is very unlikely that anything will happen, but the potential is disquieting.

Tunga’s environment is not a fun house, but it is mysterious and abrasive and the element of fear is present, albeit subliminally. The nagging element of danger produces a mild exhilaration, which in turn tempts the viewer, heightening perception and causing examination of the parts in minute detail.

Along with the sensation of fear and exhilaration, Tunga’s environment is rife with symbols that suggest meanings, producing in the viewer a compelling drive to understand. One subtle aspect of the work is its tiny cast-iron lizards, perhaps 10 to 20 in all, found on almost every component of the piece. Once the viewer discovers them they serve to encourage careful scrutiny of the installation to find a clue that will explain their inclusion. The imposing metal forms become like the parts of a shipwreck or a crashed plane, lifeless save for the lizards that make it home. Like real lizards these go unnoticed at first, becoming apparent only after one gets accustomed to the environment.

Also symbolic, apparently, are the wire hair and the comb teeth cut into the edges of the plates. The work seems to make some kind of progression as the wire hair is first braided, then loose and coiled, and finally limp, lying flat on the floor. The combs could be there in a vain attempt to straighten out the hair, to make order from chaos, but these teeth are cut far too coarsely to have any effect on the bountiful mess. Also in progression are the arrangements of magnet chips on the plate surfaces. Spread out randomly on the first plate, on the following plates the chips gradually come together to form a shape reminiscent of the club at the entrance, upright and ready. And at the point farthest from the door an eight-foot club of magnet chips lies on the floor, with all the wires disappearing into its handle. It looks like an electroclub that has taken form through some unknown process involving the plate-and-magnet sandwiches. Tunga’s clubs certainly seem capable of massive destruction, but what is to be destroyed? As a symbol, the club is most readily associated with coercion, man’s will to control other men. If Tunga intended to say something about man controlling nature, as the combs and hairlike wires suggest, he might have found a more effective symbol.

Tunga’s use of symbols as carriers of meaning leads one to expect that meanings are intended by his choice of materials as well. The copper and steel plates provide a visual contrast of light and dark, shiny and dull. There are also historical implications, copper being the main ingredient of the Bronze Age, iron being the metal that replaced bronze. Initially it is difficult to discern that the thousands of ceramic shards are magnets. The use of shattered ceramic magnets makes for a strange and seemingly magical fastening system. Tunga’s work is held together with unseen forces, the same kind of forces that hold the elements of the work and its viewers to the floor of the gallery. But no force is strong enough to hold together all of Tunga’s disparate symbols–the lizards, the hair, the comb, the club, the trap, the progression of technology. If it’s all supposed to add up to something, Tunga is unable or unwilling to communicate what that something is.

Further clouding Tunga’s intentions are two translucent pieces of silk, each bearing a faint drawing of a club standing erect with a braid coming out of its end. These drawings are placed high in the corners of the room; there magnets are fixed to the walls, and the silk is held against them by some of the iron lizards. The images are so faintly rendered that from any distance they have no impact on the environment; they seem to exist merely as an excuse to use silk in combination with the other materials, and they only detract from the drama that the rest of the work creates.

Through his images and materials Tunga creates and sustains tension, drawing one into the environment in search of resolution. But ultimately the tension created by the potential danger of the forms is matched by the frustration the viewer feels in attempting to draw a conclusion from the experience. This roomful of stuff is elaborate and intriguing, but not satisfying. Tunga seems to have started something that he is unwilling or unable to finish. After a few times through the piece it starts to feel like a smoke-and-mirrors routine.

Part of what makes an artwork successful is ambiguity. Without some elements of mystery or insinuation a work is simply obvious, like a one-liner, excluding more than a single, limited interpretation. But in Lizart 5 Tunga seems to be using ambiguity, not embracing it, as though he wants to keep us guessing, to prevent us from searching for something that he fears isn’t really there.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/James Prinz.