On ViewBEL AMI
August 1 – September 26, 2020
At the end of the 19th century, the mathematician and polymath Henri Poincaré observed that though the route taken by (for example) a casino's roulette ball might seem haphazard, it is actually determined, and its flight can be fathomed if we know its initial position and the physical laws to which it submits. This data helps divine the “butterfly effects” that the roulette ball will be buffeted by, but without that information, the ball's unfolding trajectory looks shambolic. Poincaré's revelation seeded contemporary chaos theory, and, as it happens, proves deeply instructive a century later, when infectious disease modelers engage it to predict COVID-19 outcomes.
Scott Benzel's new show at LA's Bel Ami gallery, Mindless Pleasures, gives viewers an important opportunity to contemplate the mysteries of deterministic chaos during this period of human history. In a tour de force that makes specific reference to Poincaré, other chaos theorists such as Edward Lorenz, and artists like Lee Lozano, Benzel assembles a wunderkabinett of games of chance, oscilloscopes, divinatory objects, and gelatin silver prints of Vegas hotspots. The resulting effect makes Bel Ami's white cube resemble a gambling den designed by a mad scientist bent on solving the problem of cosmic mayhem. In California Split/La Fourchette du Cavalier (2020), Benzel, who hails from Las Vegas, creates an assemblage made out of an oscilloscope (a sort of TV set that displays patterns created by electric currents) reflecting a beautiful blue light show. This spectacle is produced via circuits set to Lorenz’s famous “owl face” equation, a piece of mathematical ingenuity whose intricacy escapes this reviewer but that somehow expresses the chaos created by spontaneous breakdowns that occur in the physical world.
In Hybrid Monte Carlo (2020), Benzel offers us an honest-to-god roulette wheel. It comes complete with a little ball that you can throw while being tutored in the higher implications of roulette by Bel Ami's erudite director and co-curator Lee Foley. The wheel is plugged into another series of oscilloscopes, which are each pegged to different mathematical equations devised by the likes of Lorenz, et al. The ball tick-tack-ticks through the wheel's frets, and its impacts are fed through the equations, making kinetic blue portraits appear on the oscilloscopes’ screens. The player watches this strange art while feeling that the enterprise is “totally random” but at the same time follows some inchoate code.
A more straightforward engagement is had with a viewing of three silver gelatin prints that Benzel took at Vegas's lavish Luxor casino while out carousing with his friends. Luxor, Las Vegas (2020) shows three flashes of light ascending over an illuminated outline of the Luxor's copycat Pyramids of Giza architecture. The picture resembles both an outtake from Close Encounters of The Third Kind (1977) as well as an abstract illustration of the “three body problem” (the quandary of figuring out the flight paths of three or more celestial bodies that yield to Newton’s laws of motion and gravity), but can also be read as a cool image of flash bulbs glittering like stars in a darkened parking lot. Pylon (2020) is a snapshot of an ancient-looking temple that is actually a crassly modern mock-up of Egyptian relics that forms part of the Luxor's superfaux decor, and this image, along with Luxor, Las Vegas, leaves an aftertaste of apprehension about the deeper meanings of chaos in the context of American imperialism.
Deepening this angst is Mindless Pleasures (‘Shuffled my mind, came up with a better hand’) (2020). This work’s title comes from a saying by artist-recusant Lee Lozano, who famously exited the art world for complex reasons that included her desire to destroy what she called “emotional habits.” Mindless Pleasures is a long, thin shelf covered with tiny objects that aid in divination in Roman, West African, Greek, and Aztec cultures—lucky hand roots (which appear to be falsely attributed to African-American spiritual and speculative traditions), a Janus head coin, cowrie shells, mandrake root, and a piece of obsidian. Benzel's turn to augury speaks to the feelings of powerlessness we experience during tumultuous changes of fortune, an anxiety expressed most recently by infection control expert Dr. Kent Sepkowitz, who called President Trump’s decision to shift certain aspects of COVID-19 data collection from the CDC to the Department of Health and Human Services an effort to sow “chaos for its own sake.” Benzel's show, with its difficult theories about the patterns that underlie pandemonium, makes us think about chaos that seems random but is determined, and is not just a theory, but also emerges from power and practice.