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Rob Perrée: New York Art in PS1

New York Art in PS1

The Natural World: Here, It’s Had Work

Philip Greenberg for The New York Times

Expo 1: New York The multisite show includes these fragments of a glacier
recovered in Iceland, from the artist Olafur Eliasson, at MoMA PS1. More Photos »


Behind a white door in the basement of MoMA PS1, there’s a room that’s literally freezing cold. Inside are nearly a dozen boulder-size chunks of blue-tinged ice, fragments of a glacier in Iceland recovered by the celebrated artist Olafur Eliasson and transported here to create one of the more chilling artworks in “Expo 1: New York,” a sprawling, multisite extravaganza including a multitude of installations, shows-within-shows and events relating to the current and future state of our planet’s ecology.

The obvious lesson of Mr. Eliasson’s installation, “Your waste of time,” is that global warming is wreaking havoc on nature. But I couldn’t help wondering: how much power does it take to keep the room so cold? A wall label explains that the cooling machinery is powered by solar panels temporarily installed on PS1’s roof. Still, what’s the project’s carbon footprint? Does raising awareness of a phenomenon that most viewers already know of make it worth the energy drain? Whose time is being wasted?

Elsewhere in the building is an exhibition of beautiful black-and-white images of Yellowstone National Park and other picturesque places in the American West by Ansel Adams, the beloved nature photographer. Organized by the Museum of Modern Art photography curator Roxana Marcoci, this show within the show, “The Politics of Contemplation,” acknowledges how much Adams’s photography did to put preservation of the natural wilderness on the national political agenda. But what’s to be done, I wonder, now that places like Yellowstone and even Mount Everest are being stressed by hordes of nature-loving adventure tourists?

Much to the credit of “Expo 1” as a whole, it raises many more questions than it answers. Overseen by Klaus Biesenbach, director of MoMA PS1, with help from the globe-trotting curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, among others, the exhibition casts too wide a net and offers too many different and contradictory perspectives for anyone to find in it support for any single earth-saving program.

One component of dubious value is attracting attention: “Rain Room,” a high-tech amusement in a temporary structure next door to MoMA’s 53rd Street building in Manhattan. Produced by the group Random International, “Rain Room” welcomes visitors into a large chamber in which water showers from the ceiling but ceases wherever human bodies are detected by digital gadgetry. You walk in fearing you’ll get drenched, but you stay dry. At one end of the room, a nearly blinding white light directs its beam through the precipitation. Because the water is under pressure, it falls not in drops but in short, needlelike lines, which refract the light into rainbows of color.

Visitors willing to wait in line for the “Rain Room” experience — only 10 people at a time are allowed in — may wonder what it contributes to deep thinking about ecological issues. It could have been made for the World’s Fair of 1964, a more optimistic time when people thought that scientists might someday be able to control the weather. Today’s meteorology is still scarily unpredictable, and “Rain Room,” for all its entertaining ingenuity, seems little more than a gimmicky diversion.
The buildingwide show at PS1 is “Dark Optimism,” an appropriately oxymoronic title. The first artwork you encounter is emblematic. Made by Chris Burden, it consists of two Titanic models suspended from a beam balanced on the tip of a miniature Eiffel Tower over a toy cityscape. Activated by a motor, the boats go round and round like vehicles on a perverse amusement park ride.

Even the romantic fantasy of nature’s essential goodness is challenged. One of the most arresting works at PS1 is Pierre Huyghe’s “Zoodram 5 (After ‘Sleeping Muse’ by Constantin Brancusi),” displayed in a dark room. Within a glowing aquarium, a large, live hermit crab resides in a reproduction of Brancusi’s “Sleeping Muse,” and about a dozen spidery creatures called Arrow crabs move about on long, spindly legs. A guide in the room explained to me that Arrow crabs are fiercely territorial and will eat one another until only one remains, at which point the tank will be replenished with another batch of the little monsters.

The video “Deeparture,” by Mircea Cantor, shows a deer and a wolf in an otherwise empty white-cube-type gallery. The deer looks nervous, but the wolf doesn’t seem to be paying it much attention. I suppose they both are too disoriented to behave naturally, which is something you might say about life in general these days.

In the context of the show, Sylvia Plimack Mangold’s tenderly painted, Cézannesque pictures of bare-limbed trees exude a funereal mood, as if they were memorials for a dying species. But the work that befits the title “Dark Optimism” best might be a short video in the subshow “Pro Bio,” devoted to futuristic works about biology, genetics and so forth. One video, “Emerging Artist,” made by a group called DIS, dwells on the very pregnant bellies of three women while a female voice-over intones, “The world is waiting for something — the next artist, the next genius, the next legend.” It’s like a TV commercial in a dystopian sci-fi movie.

In its role as conversation starter, not finisher, “Expo 1” will include an extensive schedule of talks, panels and other educational events organized by editors of the magazine Triple Canopy. (Many events involving community-enhancing activities will also take place in a geodesic dome in Rockaway Beach, Queens.)

At PS1 I attended an illuminating dialogue between the writers Samuel R. Delany and Kelly Link about the state of science fiction today. Mr. Delany referred to the late-19th- and early-20th-century work of the sociologist Émile Durkheim, who discovered something previously unknown to social science: the relationships between rates of various sorts of phenomena. He showed, for example, that suicides increase as the rate of unemployment goes up. Mr. Delany’s larger point was that to make “educated guesses” about the future, you need to think about correlations among developments that may seem unrelated.

Few works in the exhibition explicitly take up this idea, but it could have been the theme of “Expo 1” as a whole. An apposite video, “Hopeless Lands,” by the Chinese artist Liu Wei, studies people in a vast dump on the outskirts of Beijing, picking through refuse and loading presumably recyclable finds into large bags, the contents of which, no doubt, will be turned into more consumer goods. Though it resembles a hellish scene from a post-apocalyptic movie, the film is an abysmally telling glimpse of one link in a present-day global ecology of production and consumption. Nothing is isolated; everything, for better and for worse, is somehow correlated.

“Expo 1: New York” continues through Sept. 2 at MoMA PS1, 22-25 Jackson Avenue, at 46th Avenue, Long Island City, Queens, and other sites; (718) 784-2084, momaps1.org