Review: Suicide Narcissus at The Renaissance Society (Artforum)

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Nicole Six and Paul Petritsch,  Spatial Intervention I   (still), 2002. Video. 28"

Nicole Six and Paul Petritsch, Spatial Intervention I (still), 2002. Video. 28"

In the group exhibition “Suicide Narcissus,” curator Hamza Walker untethers the trope of the vanitas from historical still life paintings and, politicizing death with visions of environmental apocalypse, uses human self-extinction as a conceptual thread uniting the works presented here. Anchoring the show through both its magnitude and its central mystery, Lucy Skaer’s Leviathan’s Edge, 2009—a whale skeleton only partially made visible through several narrow wall openings—at first appears to be an imaginary creature or perhaps a lesser-known dinosaur, revealing our paltry understanding of the order of things, and our tendency to read icons of death as belonging only to the distant past. The exhibition links the impermanence that pervades the natural world with acts of human intervention, whether subtle—as in Daniel Steegman Mangrané’s dreamy 16-mm video shot in a lush rainforest, in which a heavy cable guiding the camera as it hovers above the earth is only eventually noticeable—or violently active, as with a human figure hacking at a field of ice beneath his feet in Nicole Six and Paul Petritsch’s video Spatial Intervention I, 2002.

But despite its more ostensibly environmentalist themes, this is ultimately a show about time: specifically, how to come to terms with the orders of magnitude between human history and the scale of geologic time. The most rewarding pieces here forgo any outwardly ecological argument and focus on modes of anthropocentric thinking and ways of conceptualizing the (for us) nearly infinite: See, for instance, Katie Paterson’s laser etching of a map of dead stars (All the Dead Stars, 2009) and Thomas Baumann’s Tau Sling, 2008, a slack loop of rope pulled by a servo motor into ever-changing shapes against a mirror. A selection from Daniel Gustav Cramer and Haris Epaminonda’s 2007 project The Infinite Library displays some of the artists’ books they created by rebinding pages of images from found books together, evoking the melancholy of an infinitely expanding archive, useless in its inability to encompass any real meaning. The piece perhaps comes closer than any other in this exhibition to the archetypal Narcissus figure, trapped forever in inexhaustible images.