Monday, July 4, 2016

The Futility of Puzzle-Solving in Gabriel Lester’s The French Horn

The French Horn is a mixed media installation piece created in collaboration by André Chapatte, Henryetta Duer Schlag, Gabriel Lester, and Olar Zwettsloot. Entering the installation’s room is akin to entering the private office of a conspiracy theorist.  The wallpapered walls are pinned with photos, post it notes, drawings, and a map.  Yet among these are more unusual media, such as a men’s floral shirt, a French horn, and the disembodied pipe of a hookah.  Strings run in jagged diagonals across the walls, pinned from one idea to another. 

The French Horn acts as an aggregator of the various themes found in Gabriel Lester’s, Unresolved Extravaganza.   Unresolved Extravaganza is on show in De Appel Arts Centre, a contemporary arts center located at Prins Hendrikkade 142 in Amsterdam.  De Appel Arts Centre was founded in 1975 as a gallery of experimental visual art.   

Unresolved Extravaganza was assembled by the artist himself, Gabriel Lester.  However, rather than being a solo exhibition, Lester sought to highlight the collective. In Unresolved Extravaganza, Lester’s works are products of group dialogue and collaboration.  Additionally, the exhibition features works of guest artists, who commune with Lester’s art.  In all, Unresolved Extravaganza is a solo exhibition gone wild, “with a center that is not the artist himself.” 

In the exhibition’s program, The French Horn is touted as “the beating heart, the madness of, as well as the reason for, the exhibition.”  Much like the overall exhibition (Unresolved Extravaganza), the installation (The French Horn) has many authors, including artists, scholars, copywriters, students, architects, actors, and volunteers from two Amsterdam homes for the elderly.

The placement of the installation (The French Horn) at the gallery (De Appel Arts Centre) is key—it is in a small room hidden behind the projection wall on which another work is shown: Lester’s short film Murmur. The film depicts a quartet stuck in a wall within an unidentified art museum.  In the film, the members of the quartet play their instruments through holes in the wall while they debate escape.  Some of the characters advocate for escape, whereas others argue to stay.

The film, Murmur, acts as a prologue for The French Horn.  The film effectively primes viewers for the installation.  In the context of the short film, entering The French Horn’s room is like peeking behind the wall that the musicians are trapped within, and getting the chance to see their plots for escape.  The placement effectively establishes a connection between the two art pieces. 

Additionally, The French Horn makes numerous references to Murmur.  The imagery of a hole in a wall repeats throughout the room, popping up in sketch after sketch, and a photograph of each character is explicitly shown and named.  The French Horn doesn’t merely reference Murmur—it is a continuation of the piece.  Without Murmur, The French Horn would be largely unintelligible to audiences.  In other words, The French Horn could not, and would not exist, if it did not occupy the small room behind the film’s screen.

The French Horn features an overwhelming diversity of media, yet its content implies a cohesive message.  It is a testament to the power of The French Horn that rather than alienating the audience, the installation’s contents become an object of obsession.   The composition of the pinned artifacts is chaotic, roving up and down and across the walls.  However, stylistic consistencies unify the piece.  The scrawled sketches and notes are consistent in their medium (marker on paper), their handwriting, and their simplistic line drawings.  Each part of the web comes neatly labeled in block letters—“BERMUDA,” “REVOLUTION,” “ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE.”   Meanwhile, the red and blue string, the distinct wallpaper, and the isolation of the small room connect it all. 

Furthermore, the repetition of visual and textual motifs unifies the installation.  The image of a “hole in the wall,” borrowed from the film Murmurs next door, repeats in the form of drawings.  The area featuring a theme of hunting shows Cecil the lion peeking through a hole.  In keeping with the theme of Oppenheimer’s weapons of mass destruction, there is a drawing of a landscape with a mushroom cloud in the distance, seen through a hole.  At the top of the web of associations, where the placard “BRAIN” is pinned, a drawing features an arm protruding through the hole, holding a brain.  In all, this piece juggles ideas of chaos and connection adeptly, allowing audiences to understand that while madness does exist, an accessible degree of pattern does as well.  

Each wall of connections acts as a puzzle, inviting the audience to search for the answer, to understand the thematic content of the connections, and to unlock the puzzle put forth by Lester’s Unresolved Extravaganza.  For example, Robert Oppenheimer of the Manhattan Project is linked to Prometheus.  The connection is legitimate—after all, Prometheus stole fire from the Gods and gave it to man, while Oppenheimer gave the atom bomb to the Americans.  Upon later research, I found a book entitled, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer.  The connection may be a comment on the destructive tendencies of man, but more importantly, the connection appears to be legitimate.  In other areas Snowden is connected to the Panama Papers, and surrounding illustrations declare, “Keep Snowden’s crypto keys secure,” and “Panama had information they didn’t want us to know.”  The puzzle seems solvable, and references to Lester’s works find their way into the web too.  Bermuda had a cluster in the web, connecting to the exhibition’s Bermuda installation.  An illustration features the phrase, “Trust me, I’m an artist,” which Lester coined. Additionally, Murmur’s characters and themes are widely present. 

Despite its enjoyably cinematic nature, the room is sinister.  The low groans of a cello from the film on the other side of the wall leak in, so the experience is marked by melancholy.  The room is wallpapered with a pattern of greyish flowers and faded pea-green leaves that remind one of a deceased great aunt’s apartment.  The room evokes a feeling of entrapment.  The size of the room is small enough to feel claustrophobic, and the height of the ceiling, with wallpaper that reaches to the very top, dwarfs the audience.  Additionally, dotted around the walls are gold picture frames containing photographs that show people standing in front of the same wallpaper.  Some of these portraits depict their subject standing next to another portrait—of themselves.  Rather than achieving the depth brought about by the Droste effect[1] these “portraits within portraits” make their subjects seem trapped within the same room that the audience occupies.  And among these melancholic portraits was a gold-framed mirror.  When looking in, I could see myself framed against the same distinct paper, a visual analogy to these forlorn portraits.  Moreover, the subject matter covering the walls is often morbid and violent.  Clustered around the placard “Hunting” are photos of women smiling over their kills, rifle in hand, a news report of a toddler eaten by a crocodile, and sketches of holes in the wall leaking blood.    

These elements—accessible thematic connections and a sinister mood—encourage a serious and investigative attitude towards The French Horn.  However, as one becomes more familiar with the content of the sprawling installation, the puzzle seems less and less solvable.  The eponymous French horn, hanging from a high corner of the room, is visually analogous to a brain, which is in turn linked to a number of unrelated Mr. Brains: Charles Kimberlin Brain, eminent South African Paleontologist; Marshall Brain, author of the book Manna.  These links are not of thematic concern.  They are merely free associations.  The connections that seemed intuitive become weak and arbitrary.  Despite the sinister mood, the satire and absurdity of the web emerges.  The room becomes a playground of human folly.

A world map is a focal point in the installation.  It is centrally located, above the line of vision, and is the locus of multiple strings crossing the room.  Its presence is purely ironic.  The map that one might have originally considered serious becomes a parody of a detective’s search for a murderer, or a Nicholas Cage-style treasure hunt.  In one corner of the map, there’s a sketch of a pyramid entitled, “The Triangle.” In red ink, each face is labeled, “Olympus,” “North Carolina,” “Oligarchy,” and, at the top of the pyramid, “1%.”  Details like these mock grandiose connections.   The drawing’s red ink and scrawl of capital letters display the compulsive, obsessive nature of their supposed writer.  The connections made here are hyperbolic; they reveal the absurdity of the map, the madness of the web’s maker. 

Other details of the web indicate the ultimate insincerity of its messages.  For example, stock photos, the kind commonly found with a simple internet search, dot the web.  Their images are campy, tasteless. For example, alongside a photo of Fidel Castro is a stock photo of a business suit with a question mark in lieu of a wearer’s head, backed by a globe, encircled by a wreath.  What could have been an earnest comment on the nature of revolution becomes a satirical one. 

The absurdity of the web escalates in artifacts like a fabricated Herald Tribune newspaper, with headlines like, “Prometheus and Oppenheimer Walked Into a Liver Discount Store,” “The Death of Cecil the Lion,” and “The Necessary Evil: Plane #91.”  The newspaper is obviously fabricated, and, if one is attempting to solve the installation, it could be mistaken for a ham-fisted “clue.” But, rather than being clumsy, the choice reveals that searching for an answer is futile. 

For example, one framed illustration, contains each of the characters discussed in Murmur.  In the pursuit of The French Horn’s “solution,” one might follow its lines, trying to discern the motives of each character, be they drugs, fear, passivity, etc.  Yet, the directions are lighthearted and sarcastic, reading, “Puzzle time! Help each member of the quartet find his or her way out of the labyrinth!” Though Murmur is a sincere comment on the art world, this installation makes light of the musicians’ absurd positions. 

In all, this exhibition does succeed as the center of Gabriel Lester’s exhibition.  It is immersive and pulls audiences into an ominous but thoughtful mental space.  It also acts as a connector of ideas pulled from other works within the exhibition.  But finally, the strength of The French Horn lies in the fact that it is truly unresolved.  Audiences look to find the connectors between themes in the web, only to realize they are engaging in a purposely futile act. The French Horn is expected to be the explanation that makes the exhibition a cohesive whole.  Yet, it mostly reveals that there can be no neat capstone.  Our search for meaning is real, but the meaning may not exist.

[1] The Droste Effect is a Dutch term for a type of recursive picture. Images that exhibit the Droste effect have a smaller version of an image within itself recursively.

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