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CITY LIGHT.

In 1935, at the behest of his New York colleagues, Walter Benjamin set out to synopsize his famously unfinished epic, The Arcades Project. The resulting precis, "Paris, the Capital of the Nineteenth Century," offered a preview of the critic's Herculean attempt to compile all the various majorae and minutiae that gave rise to his own historical moment as revealed in that central symptom: Paris. I don't particularly like the idea that New York is the center of the universe; it bothers people who don't live here even more. But like Paris in the nineteenth century, New York is (was) the capital of the twentieth century with respect to certain ideas, objects, and symbols commonly synonymous with triumphant capitalism: not only skyscrapers and automobiles, televisions and telephones, but AbEx painting, Pop art, Minimalism, even postmodernism.

The British-born artist Paul Etienne Lincoln has been living and working in New York since 1986; still, at least on the face of it, he seems a little out of the swim in the art capital of the twentieth century. Not your typical sympathy case--the artist who's older, old-fashioned, naive, or hopelessly provincial--Lincoln is nonetheless difficult to think about in terms of currently fashionable contexts and tools. While he's enjoyed several major gallery shows and produced exciting, serious, original work for more than twenty years, his clippings amount to a thin little bundle. In fact Lincoln has received less attention from art critics than from popular journalists, who marvel at the technical complexity of his work but even more at the wackiness of it, the paradoxical purposelessness of his labor-intensive endeavors. The artist understandably would prefer not to be written about as a mad inventor, hair askew and eyes focused on some distant beaker, but pity the poor newspaperman. Lincoln's odd, obsessive w ork does call to mind antiquated scientific experiments, making him a rather unlikely observer of our condition at the threshold of the new millennium.

NINE A.M.: A phone rings, somewhere in Brooklyn. Behind it, four electrostatic generators use LP records to create electrical charges, then store the energy in Leyden jars. The records are carried down from the Public Library on Fifth Avenue and Forty-second Street each morning in a fur-lined case (fur and vinyl produce static electricity when rubbed together--a specialized fetish to be sure). Each disc features a collection of a different type of sound, indexed chronologically: vanished natural and industrial noises (extinct songbirds, outmoded car engines); A- and B-side popular songs about the city; ill-fated political speeches; high-and low-register vocal performances from the Met. These recordings will eventually serve as the sound track for a sixty-hour film documenting the only performance of Lincoln's current project, New York-New York, 1986-.

In its delirious complexity, Lincoln's magnum-opus-in-progress gives Benjamin's encyclopedic ambition a run for its money. Generally speaking, the artist's work divides into two categories: small aesthetic amuse-bouches and large-scale, labyrinthine cosmologies. Belonging to the former group is Ginsmaid,(C) 1990, a labor-saving device--or parody of one--that dispenses the perfect gin and tonic when activated by pressing an image of '4os British movie star Vera Lynn (cockney rhyming slang for the liquor itself). Although not as overtly useless as many of his pieces, Ginsmaid, like all of Lincoln's work, combines the utilitarian and the effete, labor and luxury, to strange effect. New York--New York, which raises production (industrial age--style) to new artistic heights, falls decidedly in the expansive camp. Once the ringing phone triggers the four record generators, the accumulated electricity lights up two long strings of twelve glass coils that frame a reflecting pool about forty feet long. This light, en ergy made visible, sets off a pair of large machine towers-New York (Hot) and New York (Cold)--which are the heart of the work.

New York (Hot) is essentially a big brass boiler that functions as a barrel organ, playing John Philip Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever" at excruciatingly slow speed over the work's sixty-hour run. Composed with references to all sorts of machines (Charles Babbage's difference engine, for one), it operates via a system of slide valves that open and close, transferring steam to an arrangement of eighty-six brass 1935 Buick car horns, each tuned to a different note. (Lincoln read somewhere that dinosaurs made sounds not unlike those of a '35 Buick horn; one can imagine the klaxons groaning like a similarly extinct brontosaurus herd.) New York (Cold) is made of aluminum, a chilly, futuristic contrast to the warm, antique-y brass. Each hour, the water it receives from the pool freezes, producing an icy impression of a single five-dollar bond note minutely etched with the score of the Sousa march. The bond then floats down the reflecting pool, where it melts. The element connecting these hot and cold machines i s a hugely enlarged integrated circuit (a copy of the first one made in the United States), which feeds them alternately. When New York (Cold) issues its frozen certificate, it completes the circuit, lighting up the glass coils on their course back to the telephone, and begins another round. Throughout, temperature and production readings are taken and punched into a ticker-tape machine. And there you have a primitive sketch of the workings of New York-New York, minus its ten compressors, pigeon timer, cloud chamber, tailor-made transfer gramophones, accompanying book and record editions, and, of course, drawings.

The astonishing range of components that power this metropolitan loop finds precedent in a (relatively) smaller work, In Tribute to Madame de Pompadour and the Court of Louis XV, 1983-91, one of Lincoln's most successful creations to date. This elaborate conical construction, designed to emanate the hyacinth fragrance worn by the king's fashionable mistress, reimagined eighteenth-century French society as populated by bees (workers) and snails (courtiers), which Lincoln collected from the gardens at Versailles and smuggled into the US in a specially designed raincoat. The bees produced the energy (honey) driving the system, while the snails fed off their labor and orbited a central vacuum (representing Madame de Pompadour), which controlled the oxygen supply. Complicated conversions of air, water, gas, and calcium kept the work going during a pair of month-long performances in 1984 and 1985, but this court--much like the real one--was destined to break down. As Lincoln remarked, "Such a system can't sustain such a society." In a tasty twist on eat the rich, the artist later consumed the snails in a private ritual.

Whether New York can sustain New York-New York remains to be seen: Finances permitting, Lincoln hopes to have the whole thing up for a single run at the Brooklyn Bridge Anchorage in the next year or so, a decade and a half after he started work on the project. Much of the machinery has been built and tested, although some of the logistics are yet to be nailed down. In any case, the finished piece, like Madame de Pompadour, promises to be a unified, closed system, one that, however complex and fanciful, runs on its own internal logic. In this respect, New York--New York recalls Duchamp, Beuys, and Tinguely, all of whom invoke mechanical allegories, if to different ends. One of the few contemporary artists with whom Lincoln finds common cause is Matthew Barney; they share not just an obvious affinity for the replete symbolic universe but an interest in social structures as well as in mechanical bodily metaphors (if you think human-as-machine is an outdated Enlightenment concept, consider the current role of the antidepressant in keeping emotional circuits running smoothly). In Ignisfatuus, 1995-96, recently shown at Alexander and Bonin in New York, Lincoln created a hydraulic model of the human cardiovascular and endocrine systems under the influence of a full moon--and the evocative recorded voice of the late soprano Rosa Ponselle.

Lincoln's work renders the intangible tangible: Feelings, social constructs, ideas become concrete physical processes. Water moves a lever, the lever triggers a wheel, energy becomes light and, as such, travels visibly. Beautiful objects in themselves, Lincoln's machines also make things more accessible, more in sync with the simpler mechanisms of the past that we can relate to intuitively. These archaic contraptions provide a comforting sense of mastery in contrast to current digital technologies--systems too large and too small to see, much less to comprehend.

YOU DON'T KNOW WHAT YOU'VE GOT TILL IT'S GONE: circuits, mechanical (not electronic) cars, rotary telephones, vinyl records, municipal bonds, Sousa, the five-day workweek, stocks, ticker tape, time-card punching, nationalism. The solid and permanent turns out to be fragile and provisional. But the lost past is not really lost; it is with us today, in different form, still making our world. The Paris arcades of the nineteenth century produced or at least pointed to the shopping, glass architecture, and filmic reconstitution of the masses that characterized the early twentieth century. Yesterday's industrial production, phones, and records are the telecommunications, digital networks, and CDs of today. Lincoln's work draws on nostalgia, but in so doing it also illuminates the present; New York-New York figures, and in so doing renders material, the electronic transfer and storage of information that exists, in literal and virtual archives, all around us.

To use the vinyl of old recordings to generate new electricity is to convert an obsolete mode of communication back into a generalized flow of power--a kind of controlled entropy--that in turn enables new communication. In a rethinking of the progressive model of history, the past creates the present, but the form that present takes is unpredictable. We could say, of course, that this is how all interpretation operates, not only in technology and art, but also in our own life stories. We try to understand the past and make something out of it, moving, not necessarily forward, but moving nonetheless.

Katy Siegel is an assistant professor of art history and criticism at Hunter College, CUNY.
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Author:SIEGEL, KATY
Publication:Artforum International
Geographic Code:1U2NY
Date:Sep 1, 2000
Words:1633
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