So for the Contemporary Criticism class in my MFA program at PNCA, I had to write a review of a show from the TBA13 festival. I couldn’t go to a lot of the late-night shows, some of which I’m really bummed to have missed. For my review I chose a piece that was on open display pretty much constantly during the festival: Alex Mackin Dolan‘s Sun Cycle Limit. Here is the review.
Alex Mackin Dolan — Cycle Sun Limit
I visited Alex Dolan’s “Cycle Sun Limit” with anticipation, after hearing his work examines the role of games in current society, an interest of mine.
The exhibit is a series of sculptures and digital paintings, widely spaced in a large gallery. The relative distances between the pieces and the stark white walls contributed to an unearthly, weightless feeling surrounding the whole collection, possibly further enhanced by my being the only person there. The stillness permeated the work.
Upon entering the room a small pamphlet is made available. Inside are instructions on how to play the game TAMSK, and several short textual pieces that range from prose poetry to transcripts of online dialogue. Spread around the space are eight stations, comprising nine individual works.
The first is a floor mat, an enlarged photograph of eight glasses of water seen from above. Resting on top of this mat are three more glasses. The next four stations are tables. The first one is two pieces — a white backpack filled with a grey sweater, two blank white notebooks, a can of an unknown drink, and several sheets of hanjie puzzles. Next to the backpack are two engraved glasses. The table itself is covered with a printed pattern of shoe treads. On the second table are two TAMSK board games, with two benches for player to sit on. The third table is covered with sun prints, and on it is what appears to be a sand casting of a sun and moon intertwined. The final table has a Wii gaming console and controller, set up with a solitaire card game program hacked onto it. The table also has a third engraved glass.
There are also four paintings, in three groups. The first is an abstracted digital photograph of people walking in the snow. The second is a diptych: a digital photo of a guided walking tour, and the abstracted digital painting from the same photo. The third is an abstracted digital photo of a girl is what looks like a parade.
Thematically, as indicated from the title of the piece, the work is tripartite — considering games, walking, and the recommended daily intake of water. But each in its own way addresses the idea of repetition, grids, patterns, and cycles. The piece seems to explore the connection between these cycles and the mental and physical health the cycles provide. The pamphlet refers to “comfort” and “benefits” bestowed; of how the overcoming cancer, smoking habits, and illnesses was aided by games and walking. A whole page of the pamphlet explains the benefits of drinking eight glasses of water, with statistics to back it up.
On the other hand, the pamphlet also connects game-playing with “addiction” and carpal tunnel syndrome. This sets up a tension between the benefits of walking, and the relative sedimentary life of game-playing, where one does “not get a damn thing done”.
The exhibit invites the viewer to play both the TAMSK board game and the hacked Wii solitaire game. The space itself encourages the viewer to slow down, and take the time to play. I was able to attempt a couple of moves of the TAMSK game, but was unfortunately I was alone and could not play a complete game. The Wii solitaire game, on the other hand, was not functional. I am going to assume this was intentional. This sets up an interesting dichotomy — the artist has taken a relatively high-tech device, the Wii, hacked into it (requiring sophisticated technical ability), to install a simple game usually played with cards. The game, for all the effort, is then unplayable.
The digital paintings proved a mystery to me. Clearly the subject of the paintings are related to the idea of walking, and the health benefits associated with it. The process of creating the paintings — taking digital photographs and re-rendering them, slightly abstracted — appears important, as can been seen in the direct comparison between two of them.
My reaction to this piece was mixed. My initial thought was that mid-morning might not have been the best of times to see the work – it was all but empty. But as I experienced the work, I appreciated the zen-like sparsity to the showing.
It felt, however, very much like stepping into the sketchbook of the artist, glancing through notes written to himself; notes using a semiology that is perhaps too unique, or exclusionary; or, on the other hand, too vague and encompassing to contain meaning.
The sculptural pieces only took on meaning for me through the pamphlet, which ultimately made the pamphlet more the center of the art piece than anything else. This naturally led to a diminishing of the art objects themselves. I was confused about the persona of the pamphlet — at times it felt like the artist himself, at times it felt like a character he was putting on. This was furthered by several spelling and grammatical errors.
However, if one browses Dolan’s own website and Tumblr blog, one finds a consistency of tone – reinforcing his overall oeuvre – and the same spelling problems, which may be slightly more problematic.
The sparsity of this piece, and its themes of cycles, grids, games and the mundane can also be seen in another of Dolan’s work, ZERTZ Player with Koch Snowflake, at West Lane South, London, 2013. In that show he explores another board game in the same series as TAMSK, it’s relation to fractal patterns, and how people relate to both tabletop and computer games. He draws a connection between the computer’s ability to rapidly iterate through simple patterns to form larger, more complex designs, and the human impulse to find patterns to win in games.
This overall consistency across pieces and shows displays a methodical clarity of vision, an auteurship. And, as with other auteurs, the work’s repetition may attract or repel based on the viewer’s own aesthetic appreciation of the style.
This was an interesting addition to the TBA festival, if only for the way it attempts to remove the viewer from the flow of time altogether – by repetition, banality, mental diversions, or aesthetics.