"Felix Gmelin: The Cells in an Onion" at Maccarone Inc.
9 May – July 2004
Positions about the role of politics in art too often divide into mutually exclusive and equally dogmatic camps: those who champion the total separation of the aesthetic and the everyday; and those who opine that art’s function, indeed responsibility, is to participate in worldly debates. That Swede Felix Gmelin’s first solo exhibition in the United States, "The Cells in an Onion," bridges this division, as deeply entrenched as it is increasingly unproductive, is sufficiently impressive. That the erstwhile painter’s efforts, sparsely installed at Maccarone Inc.’s Chinatown triplex, do so with little or no compromise to either position pushes the exhibition into the superlative.
Greeting the viewer through the gallery’s street-level window is The Voice of the People (2003), a diminutive (12” x 24”) and determinedly slipshod rendition of Picasso’s 1937 anti-Spanish Civil War masterpiece, Guernica. Gmelin’s copy not only references the UN’s recent concealment of its own tapestry version in deference to US Secretary of State Colin Powell’s pre-invasion communiqué, but, mounted on a seven-and-a-half foot pole, recalls portable placards from subsequent protests. The UN’s controversial gesture also serves as the basis for the less successful Flatbed, The Blue Curtain (2003). After 3 hours and 17 minutes, a blue curtain cloaks a reproduction of Guernica over which 5 painters have been laboring, happily ending a process as interminable for the viewer as it was doubtlessly taxing for them.
A single work, Two Films Exchanging Soundtracks (2003), occupies the second floor. As the title indicates, two films projected on diagonally opposite walls – a documentary on Maoist education and a polemic about the benefits of psychedelic drugs – are accompanied by the other’s soundtrack. Through the cacophony, moments of happenstance lucidity emerge, as when a voiceover declaring, “it was a long and arduous process” accompanies a pan of students cleaning windows. At others, the image/sound juxtaposition is laden with poignancy, as when we hear “he forced me to dance” while viewing mandatory calisthenics at a Chinese school. At still others, it is simply hilarious, as when an earnest young lady seems to scream at a colleague, “It’s the village, idiot!”
If Two Films Exchanging Soundtracks intimates an ability to use simple formal devices (switching soundtracks, projecting on opposite walls) to engender multiple, layered meanings, Color Test II, The Red Flag (2002), unequivocal confirms this ability. Critically acclaimed at last year’s Venice Biennale, the video diptych juxtaposes Gerd Conradt’s 1968 tracking shot of students relaying a red flag through the streets of West Berlin with Gmelin’s remake in Stockholm. Potent individually, paired, the videos are visually riveting: their bilateral symmetry contrasts with the recessive perspective of the streets unrolling behind the participants racing toward respective, retreating cameras.
Alone on the uppermost floor save for three stills in the far corner, Color Test II, The Red Flag recalls The Voice of the People, on the ground floor. With remarkable economy, the former’s portable flag and the latter’s portable placard knot together today’s political atmosphere with that of 1968 and 1937 within the span of a single show, simultaneously satiating the demand for social engagement and the desire formal rigor. In continually negotiating this balance, Gmelin’s exhibition, and the artworks therein, neither withdraw into autonomy nor become mere vehicles for a predetermined external agenda. Not unlike open-ended propositions, Gmelin’s works take political source material (Guernica, propaganda films) and, through a series of formal manipulations, provoke rather than prescribe thought.