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My Private Space Program”
Ready for deployment at a moment’s notice, the spacesuit is a metaphor-in-waiting. Just by virtue of meeting its design constraints, it comes loaded with meaning. Maintaining a barrier between natural vacuum and artificial atmosphere, keeping body heat from being lost to the endless cold, it affords its occupant a strictly mediated interaction with perilous surroundings. It carves a livable environment into the outline of the human form, creating a portable, person-shaped refuge from the annihilating nothingness. Tethered to a tiny craft, it harnesses a diver for a plunge into an abyss deep in all directions.
To create the apparatus that enables such isolation requires vast resources, teams of thousands, a budget of billions. For “My Private Space Program,” an exhibition currently on view at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), Zurich-based artist Max Grüter brings the space race down to earth and gives himself a starring role as the cosmic conquistador. He zips himself into the uniform and, though he attempts to probe its unseen implications, he never manages to go, boldly or not, where no one has gone before.
If you Google “famous Swiss explorer,” you get five hits—and one of those is Erich von Däniken—so it shouldn’t surprise you that Grüter has already walked much of the turf on which he plants his flag. For a group of aluminum-mounted Lambda prints known as the EVA 2 series, he computer-modeled an ordinary domestic interior reminiscent of his childhood home—upholstered furniture, shelving, plants, linoleum, ashtray, bowl of fruit—and positioned his digitally generated orange-suited alter ego within it. As the astronaut sits at the dinner table, directing his suspicion across the room (Frühlingserwachen [spring awakening]) or lies in a crouch on a fringed oriental rug, still strapped into his capsule’s couch (Fliegender Teppich [magic carpet]), the awkward, uncanny juxtapositions call to mind the eerie magical realism of Chris Van Allsburg.
Not to mention his representational fetishism. Over the past decade or so, ever since he ran out of stories to tell, the hyperrealist children’s-book author/illustrator has attempted to engage himself with new technical challenges while keeping his audience on the hook with his trademark ominous air. We may not know if better work lies in Grüter’s own past—with the exception of sketchy, decorative new wall drawings of floating astronauts and three videos from 2003, all the work at AAAS dates from 2001—but he seems to have arrived in an equivalent place, so impressed with his chops that he is content to suggest stories whose telling neither he nor his viewers are likely to find all that pressing.
The use of the Macintosh rather than the drawing board complicates matters in all the wrong ways. The smugness that comes of manipulating cutting-edge technology might be tolerable when attached to cutting-edge images; even after only a couple of years, however, Grüter’s are starting to show their age. These same factors are at play in the video games whose precisely rendered cut scenes Grüter’s illustrations equally evoke. But that medium is understood by producer and consumer alike to have a fantastically short shelf life, with titles going from hot to not in mere months. Art customarily moves a little more slowly through the distribution channels; the idea of work that doesn’t stay fresh through the early rounds of exhibition would seem to be a nonstarter.
In any kind of animation (and Grüter’s figure-in-a-box, astronaut-at-home series looks very much like a bunch of animation stills), the backgrounds receive the benefit of less rendering muscle (real or virtual) than the ostensibly movable elements and so are the quickest to give the game away. Too-slick surfaces, angled curves, and not-quite-palpable substances are the sorts of faults that can be glossed over with furious action and lots of noise. But in “Private Space,” where no one can hear you snooze, the only sound is the steady 63-BPM thuppa-thup of a video with the Dieteresque title Liebe Ist Eine Pumpe [love is a pump], which is best imagined as a telltale heart programmed to instill not guilt but ennui.
The love-pump thuds along as two flanking monitors, also wrapped in what looks like the Mylar foil that protected the Apollo lunar modules, display similarly uninvolving videos. On the left is Winker [waver], in which a drifting spaceman flips up his visor, waves at the screen, and—though he doesn’t really appear to make contact with it on the second pass—lowers his visor once more. On the right is GO [permanent], a close-up of the helmeted artist in blast-off mode, vibrating without cease. It’s the tensest part of any rocket ride, but here the danger is prolonged until any heightened awareness dissolves into a lull, the video’s infinite loop paradoxically guarding him from threat rather than sustaining him at its highest pitch.
As he zooms unendingly through the atmosphere, the reflected blue yonder flashes across his face. The helmet glass as both window and mirror, as a means of projecting the image of the great unknown onto the face’s manifestation of inner mood—always some mixture of anxiety and awe in these cases—is an old sci-fi movie trope, made famous in 2001: A Space Odyssey but already a real-world occurrence long before 1968. Grüter is plainly a student of that film. He devoted the nine-panel Experiment series to an homage to Kubrick’s drifting-pen scene. Only instead of the Pan Am space stewardess replacing the pen in the pocket of the sleeping Dr. Floyd, it is astro-Grüter who, frame by frame, is seen lofting and recapturing it.
The EVA 2 series’ notion of the spaceman as a domestic fish-out-of-water was inherited not only from the white-room scene toward the end of 2001 but also from the drawing-room scene in Tarkovsky’s Solaris. A debt is owed, too, to the tradition of space-age pop songs that envision astronautics as alienation. The most effective of these—David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” Elton John’s “Rocket Man” (yes, even with its typically misshapen Bernie Taupin lyric), and Peter Schilling’s tautly arranged Bowie answer song “Major Tom (Coming Home)”—make explicit the gulf separating the spaceman adrift in the void from the mundane comforts of hearth and home. And all possess an emotional heft that Grüter, though he attempts to piggyback on them, can’t seem to muster.
He does little better with a series of small “3-d electronic sculptures” that, though conceived inside the computer, are essentially printed out into three-dimensional space, using a prototyping technique by which a mathematically framed object is built up in the real world contour by contour, paper slice by paper slice. (It’s basically the reverse of the Visible Human Project, in which a corpse was cryosliced into human prosciutto and displayed sheet by sheet online.) Sculptors have been talking about the possibilities of “laminated object manufacturing” for several years, but these pieces, the first products of that process I’ve seen in the flesh, are rather unprepossessing things, having a sort of prison-art chunkiness that is completely at odds with anyone’s notion of hi-tech. Only the sphinxlike dog in Laika und Ich [laika and me], a tabletop monument to the early canine cosmonaut, evokes the mysteries of space travel, and then only by way of tender comedy. The sense that Grüter produced these works simply because he could, without much of an expressive or intellectual goal in mind, is inescapable.
It would seem that the computer-seduced artist little understands his own strengths: “Private Space Program”’s witty show-stealer lies humbly underfoot, refusing to make too much of its digital design. A dark-charcoal-colored wool carpet sculpted with trails of moon-boot footprints turns the frontier-dashing explorations of Armstrong, Aldrin, and the few who followed them into a Warholian dance diagram anyone can follow. With Small Steps, Grüter ditches the heavy cargo better carried by those who came before him and comes tripping lightly home. CP