Maria Antelman: Disassembler
New YorkPioneer Works
December 6, 2018 – February 10, 2019
On a bleak afternoon in late December, the heavy door to Pioneer Works in Red Hook gives way to a dark stairwell that serves as the gallery’s vestibule. Overhead, an imposing video monitor holds a silent black-and-white image of a hand, palm open, fingertips twitching in and out. Maria Antelman’s Hand (2018) could be a scene from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, taken the moment when the patched-together corpse comes to life. Positioned in the entryway, the disembodied entity serves as a greeter, or perhaps a sentinel, marking the entrance to Antelman’s show. The intimacy of the image stirs feelings of connection to whomever is attached to the hand, but the staccato movement seems unnatural, foreboding. I hesitate before climbing the stairs.
Eight video installations by Antelman are displayed across three floors of gallery space in Maria Antelman: Disassembler, curated by Gabriel Florenz. Gathering found footage, still photographs and ominous audio, the artist builds jumpy strands of animation that play in endless loops. Throughout the work, Antelman taps into well-worn cautionary tales of a future in which the natural world submits to the technological, the individual serves as slave to the machine, and the human figure transforms into a cyber-organism. If the themes are familiar, Antelman draws on them in unexpected ways to add an infusion of creepiness to her assemblages of nonfiction elements.
Upstairs, I step tentatively into the blackness of a room barely lit by screens. A small video monitor placed on the floor shows a close-up of a quivering eye pressed against its mirror-image. In I/Eye (2018) Antelman presents another unsettling reduction of the human form. Her tight framing distills the myth of Narcissus down to its most elemental components as the eye of the beholder and the beheld merge, unblinking and unable to look away from each other. The body series continues with Eye & Mouth (2018), in which an eye stares helplessly at a gaping mouth, its tongue rolling behind a row of teeth as if in a scream. Tongue (2018) features a stuck-out tongue that waggles at the viewer, bringing levity to work that questions the parameters of existence when a subject—or part of a subject?—is encountered solely in a video monitor. The four pieces are silent, leaving any message the entities may be trying to emit unexpressed, as if muted by the thick glass of the video screen. The viewer is held at a distance, observing but not really understanding whatever language the appendages may possess.
Rumblings and crashes punctuate alternating voices as viewers take turns reclining in a chair equipped with speakers in the headrest and a monitor hanging at eye-level in the installation The Wild West (2017). On screen, Antelman strings out archival images of walls, tunnels, and figures clad in protective jumpsuits. The clips look to have been lifted from NASA or perhaps the labs at MIT. The narration, based on the work of geoscientist Paul S. Martin, explains his theory of “rewilding” the American West with lost species that include the mammoth and saber-toothed tiger. The video stands as a meditation on the accelerating loss of life forms on this planet, as the space-age images point to the impossibility of restoration for such long-gone wild things. As I watch, my mind wanders to lists of endangered species, to the acceleration of climate change, and to the feeling of lying passively in a chair, observing the futility of what is being proposed on screen.
Central to the show is the eponymous Disassembler (2018), a single channel video co-commissioned by Pioneer Works, and the National Museum of Contemporary Art, Athens (EMST). Disassembler takes its name from a software program that translates code to language, and was inspired by Amazon’s newly patented wristband, which would track the movements of warehouse workers’ hands. In Antelman’s video, a computerized voice chants instructions about mounting sensors to fingertips and palm, but the recitation is upstaged by shifting images of trees, rocks, animal skins. Hands dig into mud. The face of a child emerges from a formation of clouds. I repeatedly find myself trying to tune out the voice in favor of Antelman’s soothing montage of images backed by the sounds of water, insects, and birds. Is this the experience of a worker whose days are spent mindlessly following robotic procedures, comforted by traces of memory and dreams? Or is Antelman setting her gaze on some unforeseen epoch when the technological systems are finally switched off? An image of a woman, fingers bound by elbow-shaped tubing, flashes on screen. The device that binds her looks more like a puzzle, something from which she can wriggle out if she tries—but will she? As the door to the gallery closes behind me, I can only wonder.