When Art and Science Collide
Bio-Mechanics by Alan Rath at the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, October 6 -November 12, 1995, by Peter Harvey
Descending the stairs to the small gallery, one is greeted by two speakers approximately a foot in diameter suspended from the ceiling. These speakers are not in any sort of encasement—their workings are exposed in plain view. The diaphragms are pumping like two woofers at a disco, and yet the only sound they make is barely audible in a quiet gallery and indiscernible when more than two people-are talking within earshot. The speakers, alive with movement and the potential for sound, resemble two surveillant eyes (mouths, ears?) welcoming, broadcasting and beckoning in visitors. The electrical connections run through long, flexible conduit (the kind we used to call "gooseneck") resembling industrial optic nerves winding their way around a graphic panel and just under the door into the gallery. Once inside, the cables wrap around the existing duct-work until we see a third speaker facing a corner and a strange looking panel on the wall where these slowly pulsating lifelines meet and collect their signals. The label describes Off The Wall II, 1989 as "variable in dimension and constructed of wood, aluminum, electronics, and three speakers."
Most of the pieces in the show are constructed of naked electronics. The wiring, cathode ray tubes, and circuit boards are not covered with an oversized cabinet as they would lie in a home stereo or television because the form and composition of these components are integral to the sculptural experience of the show. As a youngster, I made a "hot dog cooker" out of a hoard, two nails and a lamp cord (don't try this at home). Wondering if my wiener was thoroughly cooked, I once touched it while the contraption was plugged in and felt the cool, unsettling buzz of flowing electrical current. This experience returned to me as I considered the fact that I was not at all tempted to touch the exposed wiring and circuitry of the works in the show—no doubt, much more carefully designed and safer than my hot dogger.
As the exhibit's title suggests, there is a biological element to the objects Alan Rath has created. The long conduits Off The Wall II undulate like snakes in a slow groove. Several of the pieces contain moving parts or corporeal images. Pulsating, whispering speakers are a recurring theme. The quiet motion continues on several cathode ray tubes in other pieces around the displaying various body parts in motion. Ouch, 1993 is a self-portrait of sorts with a picture of the artist's face on a cathode ray tube held in a vice. The image of the artist's face in a pinched expression on the CRT involves the viewer in a sly commentary on mediated representation. The television becomes both signifier and signified: the CRT is squeezed in the vice and the expression on the face looks as though it were caught in a closing elevator door. The vice is mounted atop a wooden stool in an apparent homage to Duchamp. The electronic works of the piece dangle from the seat by a pair of black handcuffs. Appearing in more than one piece in the show, manacles suggest a close but involuntary relationship.
In Family, a few strategically stacked suitcases with speakers in them are cuffed to large chains leading to CRTs displaying close-up images of talking mouths. The baggage of the inescapable consanguine link is neatly addressed here without didacticism. The viewer is thus enabled to personalize the sculpture and include her/his own familial experience in its meaning. This points to one of the strengths of Rath's work; the ability to create an interesting object with avenues for viewer accessibility.
Alan Rath, a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, assembles the circuit boards himself and writes his own computer program code for his pieces. The deft handling of the electronics along with the handmade look of the work resonates that this is a meeting of the arts and sciences. More than sculptures or electronic art, these are nor just examples of les arts mecanique: these are art gizmos. Some are reminiscent of Jean Tinguely and, of course, the CRTs strategically placed on the floor remind us of Nam June Paik (no stranger to M.I.T.). In an informative introduction in the catalog for the show, Dana Friis-Hansen attempts to seat the work in the context of "contemporary sculpture" by implying a formal relation ship between Rath's objects and those created by Louise Nevelson, Edward Kienholz and some other, less dead, artists who are thirty years past "contemporary." We are informed that Rath shares Donald Judd's "industrial aesthetic" because he had one hundred boxes made, providing him "a standard formal unit with which to work," (I can't get a box of a dozen donuts anymore without considering the container a "standard formal unit.”), This line of "art speak" doesn't do justice to Rath's ability to make a formally interesting piece that is full of meaning and accessible to the viewer. The strength of this combination is evident in Linguist, 1993 where the “abstract industrial forms" are combined with an image of a mouth on a CRT and a video game-like joystick. When a viewer manipulates the joystick, the tongue pops out of the mouth and licks the lips in a pattern mimicking the movement of the controls. A visitor might stand there and move the tongue around while considering the meaning of the piece and the experience of participating in an act of art. By touching the joystick, the audience passes beyond "my kid could do that" and is enabled to reach "hey look what I'm doing." The interactive nature of Rath's work and its interpretation contribute to its successful subjectivity. In other words, if you have the money and you haven't bought one of these pieces, you have some explaining to do.
Peter Harvey is a writer in Houston.