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.