Swiss Institute // March 6-April 28
Modern Painters, June 2013
Kessler’s manic installations, which critic Jerry Saltz once categorized as “clusterfuck aesthetics,” fuse the absurdity of kinetic art and the media savvy of Name June Paik with a dystopian view of contemporary networked culture. I first encountered Kessler’s work at MOMA PS1 in 2005, in the site-specific installation The Palace at 4 A.M.–clusterfuck aptly describes the spawl of closed-circuit surveillance equipment, and photomontages that sharply critique the pornographic theater of war imagery. Viewers passed between two galleries via a huge photo cutout: One side had the image of George W. Bush’s disembodied open mouth; the other, a headless woman’s vagina.
The Web, 2013, Kessler’s Swiss Institute commission, targets the ubiquity of the Internet and mobile devices. Where the artist framed The Palace at 4 A.M. with a penetrative gesture, he constructs the entrance to The Web as a mise en abyme. Visible from the street, a succession of blown-up photos of MacBooks, mounted at eye level with the screens cut away, mimics an infinite mirror effect. The installation in the main gallery translates the Internet’s ephemerality into something clunky and physical. Under a web of blue yarn generated by a knitting machine, Kessler creates a complex labyrinth of circulating images with surveillance cameras, arrays of monitors, iPhones, and iPads that critique the iconography of technology ads. Here, viewers can see their image inserted via video feed into static images of device screens. Visitors can participate by snapping photos in the space via the exhibition’s iPhone app. But rather than the thrill of the experience, the encouragement to take pictures in such an oversaturated mediascape turns interaction into free labor–much like the tracking of consumption habits via check-in apps on social networks.
Among the plasticized signifiers of Internet marketing, Kessler includes three uncanny sculptures of “Global Village Idiots,” a recurring motif. Cast from the artist’s likeness, the hyperrealistic figures embody a pessimistic inversion of Marshall McLuhan’s ideal of a connected world. The laconic gray-bearded idiots respectively scroll through images on an iPad, iChat with visitors, and masturbate. Their slacker-style verisimilitude provides a startling counterpoint to the commodified images of Web slickness. Drained of aggression and agency, isolated from one another, the Idiots lend a melancholy presence to The Web. But when contrasted with Kessler’s previous searing critiques of the media, the torpor of the Idiots suggests an insidious apathy. Kessler’s work asks if citizens of the iPhone era can escape the reification of our own images, and answers with a shrug. A more polarizing aesthetic question remains: Does countering the Internet’s false consciousness begin with demystifying its seductive, nimble surface or with embracing the clusterfuck in its virtual realm?