Roebling Hall’s new Chelsea space is not quite as finished as Bjørn Melhus’s symphonic installation “Prime Time” (2001). The video installation composed of thirty-two televisions and a large wall projection should make Melhus a truly international art star. While he is well known and widely collected in Europe, he has been slowly emerging in New York recently. His brilliant single-channel videos shown in The American Effect at the Whitney saved that show from complete mediocrity. Despite their success they were merely a brief introduction to his extensive oeuvre, including “Weeping” presented at Roebling Hall’s Satellite® Gallery last spring. “Prime Time” is a tour-de-force installation that should finally make the scope and strength of Melhus’s artistic ambition obvious.
Formally “Prime Time” eclipses any of his previous New York efforts, including the centerpiece of his debut solo show at Roebling Hall, “Sometimes” (2002), which seems passive in comparison. Composed of four major elements, “Prime Time” has a control tower of six monitors, a hive-like chorus of twenty-nine wall-mounted televisions, a twenty-foot projection, and an elongated platform with stairs at the center. The relationships between the different parts are brilliantly conceived, as the control tower calls out to the chorus of televisions with color-coded bursts of light that offer synchronized responses. Between the facing televisions, a projection features a sanguine host, sometimes flanked by two lovely assistants. The host and his assistants are intermittently replaced by what looks like a furiously spinning bobble-headed hula dancer. The viewer sits in a central, distracted position on the platform, continuously focusing on audio cues from the three sources.
Melhus plays all the characters, host, assistants, and bobble-head. Clutching a humorously enlarged orange microphone, the host offers platitudes, odd chanting, and sings a slightly distorted country-western ditty. As the twin, lovely assistants, he appears in a red dress and blonde wig with a demure smile. As the bobble-head, Melhus’s smiling head is stationary atop the whirling dancer. The image is a wonderfully absurd motif that is also full of pathos as Melhus transforms himself into a kitsch object. The connection between the formal devices—a multiplicity of flashing screens and the lip-synched performances—is a reflection of an uncomfortably familiar post-human condition. The subject matter—trashy daytime talk shows and B-movies—is achingly human. Yet Melhus divorces it from its familiar setting: he transports the drama into an electronic dystopia. It’s almost as if we are watching a show about humans made not for our own egos but for some intelligent life that might exist in the parallel universe of electrons and signals. In one poignant moment, the wall of televisions weeps static tears, not for themselves, but for the plight of the pathetic human condition. The female assistants mouth “I slept with my sister,” the scrolling text says “I had sex with my father,” while the host sings a sad song.
The narrative layer, a montage of bad American television tropes, is acted out by cyborgian Melhus clones and mirrored in the abstract language of the televisions. They become disembodied figures that interact, as an audience might, with the story that reveals shades of David Lynch. As with “Sometimes,” where Melhus sampled John Carpenter, there is a stylistic debt to American cinema, although this time, it is not obvious or even certain; it is simply appropriate for Melhus’s non-condescending tone.
There is a sadness to the proceedings amid the manic silliness. The flashing televisions reach a crescendo of activity following a climax of sexual violence. After the sudden dénouement, the host character serenades the audience with a melancholy song. It’s almost touching considering the inhuman performance and the mesmerizing televisions. Throughout the experience, the early experiments of video artists from Nam Jun Paik to the Vasulkas come to mind. However Melhus uses video and television not merely as formal devices, but rather as characters in his hypertextual narrative, going beyond the physiological experience of works like Vasulkas’ “Noisefields” (1974) or Paik’s technology jamming. In “Prime Time” the medium isn’t just the message, it’s also the sender and the receiver. We are the spectacle.
Glitching Time and Time-Based MediaBy Charlotte Kent
OCT 2022 | Art and Technology
Time is a socio-technological system with profound organizing qualities that feels, these days, exceedingly oppressive. Theres never enough time! For anything. Calendars are the earliest containing device with the purpose of determining a social order; the history of the Roman calendar reveals the role of international and national politics that play out across each new temporal infrastructure. Our temporal orders have been designed through the global proclamation of Greenwich Mean Time in 1884 by colonial empires, the apocalyptic anxiety provocations of the doomsday clock established in 1947, the insistent instant-ness of digital time since the 1970s exacerbated by strings of video chat meetings of the last couple years, and the frenetic branding of our social/professional lives demanded by transnational corporate technologys mediation of everyone and everything, all the time. Its a mess.
Monica Sjöö: The time is NOW and it is overdue!By Brittany Rosemary Jones
SEPT 2022 | ArtSeen
When Monica Sjöös canvas God Giving Birth (1968) was installed at St. Ives Town Hall in 1970 it was met with immediate controversy. The challenge to Christian conceptions of God posed by its depiction of a woman of color delivering a child outraged the town mayor, who demanded its removal on grounds of blasphemy.
Spencer Longo’s TIMEBy Josh Schneiderman
SEPT 2022 | Art Books
The book uses unstapled pages from Time magazine as the bases of its collages. It shows what it feels like to live in a crumbling empire, in an era widely regarded as the end of history.
Pamela Sneed: ABOUT timeBy Jillian McManemin
JUL-AUG 2022 | ArtSeen
If you have any interest in poetry, you probably know Pamela SneedBlack, lesbian, radical poet, and one of the infamous Grand Dames of the downtown scene. Her stage presence is formidable and her voice, revolutionary. Her 2020 book Funeral Diva published by City Lights Books looks back on her experiences during the AIDS Crisis while making correlations to COVID-19, and the ongoing layered impacts of racism, homophobia, and political brutality. In ABOUT time at Laurel Gitlen, Sneeds visual practice merges with her poetic one, creating an exhibition that is fiercely outspoken, experimental, and personal.