Art Review: Watch Out: You’re in Ai Weiwei’s Surveillance Zone

2017-06-08 15:58:03

 

Art Review: Watch Out: You’re in Ai Weiwei’s Surveillance Zone

With “Hansel & Gretel,” the Park Avenue Armory once again aims ambitiously, and at great expense, for participatory public art but settles instead for public entertainment. In this latest attempt, the subject is surveillance. Your every move is eerily recorded from above by a grid of cameras, which register your ghostly image beneath your feet, while a few tethered drones buzz overhead.

Yet surveillance, so much a part of everyday life, is mostly reduced from threat to mildly educational fun here. The work encourages further variations on the snow-angel selfie, as visitors spread out on the floor and then rise, like Lazarus, leaving behind blurry images of themselves, which they rush to photograph. (It is, in fact, a selfie of a selfie.) At times the scene feels like a large, overactive picnic in a park.

A collaboration several years in the making, this immersive, super-high-tech installation in two parts reunites Ai Weiwei, the Chinese artist-activist-dissident, with Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, the Swiss architects overseeing an inspired restoration of the armory’s historical building. The three worked together on the astounding-looking National Stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, a work of starchitecture whose basketlike structure is known as the Bird’s Nest.

The armory project’s curators are Hans Ulrich Obrist, artistic director of the Serpentine Galleries, a noncollecting exhibition space in London (for whom the artist and architects designed a collaborative pavilion in 2012), and Tom Eccles, executive director of the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y.

The work is one of those shows that has “How much did this cost?” written all over it. (The armory would not say.) It teems with fashionable relevance, dovetailing with newish knowledge that the National Security Agency spent years collecting emails and texts that Americans exchanged with people overseas, and at a time when the executive wing of the federal government is displaying disturbing authoritarian tendencies.

It is ominous that one day all the streets in cities across the world could be watched by this blanket surveillance. Yet here, at least, that prospect is not nearly as scary as “Hansel and Gretel” read aloud, with its evil stepmother, abandoned children, cookie-covered cottage and cannibalistic witch who eventually dies by being shoved into a burning oven. (The book is for sale in the armory’s gift shop, along with a line of surveillance-skirting products.)

This more benign “Hansel & Gretel” is a kind of thinking person’s “Rain Room,” the popular water installation seen at the Museum of Modern Art in 2013. Its sheer spectacle inspires brief awe, then you figure it out, and it is reduced to technology, and fun. The fun is especially dense in the large, somewhat lighter areas of the drill hall floor called “clearings,” where the captured images erode more slowly. Visitors hold and repeat deliberate poses — for a kind of Muybridge, stop-motion effect. Or they collaborate, joining hands in rings. Dancers and yoga devotees may especially revel.

Sometimes the effect is “Tron”-like. Infrared outlines constantly form and reform around the images strewn about the floor, as if a military analyst were zooming in for a closer look; straight white lines of light suggest cross hairs or coordinates and sometimes seem to appear behind people as they walk.

One of the creators’ better ideas was to avoid the armory’s grand Park Avenue entrance for a small door on Lexington Avenue where you walk in at street level (as into a park, as Mr. Herzog put it, albeit one with a $15 admission fee). Navigating a long, black, tunnellike passageway feels ominous and subterranean; it made me think of Saddam Hussein’s spider-hole hide-out, or a corridor installation by Bruce Nauman, done chic. It leads directly into the vast, darkened Wade Thompson Drill Hall, which is Part 1, and to a few powerful moments of genuine disorientation. Here you walk up a slight slope — and then downward for more parklike effect.

Before I realized that the images on the floor mirrored the visitors’ movements, it felt like coming upon a hastily covered mass grave or killing field, where bodies and body parts were poking out of the earth, or maybe Pompeii as it was being excavated. But this brief poetic haunting quickly dissipated once it became clear that the blurry images were our own doing and that nearly everyone was looking at and photographing images of themselves or others. That’s when the picnic frolic set in.

I expected “Hansel & Gretel” Part 2 to be redemptive, raising the level of seriousness or at least dread. To reach it, you exit the drill hall back onto Lexington Avenue and walk around to the armory’s main Park Avenue entrance. There, the press statement said, “visitors transition into the role of the observer.” We would surveil ourselves being surveilled on iPads (nicely arranged on library tables). I imagined that the technology would allow me to see myself walking around Part 1, taking photographs and notes.

Instead, to paraphrase the T-shirt, all I got was a lousy face-recognition program. Three times I took a picture of myself on the iPad and three times the program sifted through the data, matching it to a face from the drill hall. One of them was mine, confirming the 30 percent success rate Mr. Eccles promised.

“Hansel & Gretel” as a costly bit of meh as art, if a somewhat effective demonstration of cutting-edge surveillance and its capacity for total saturation.

The iPad has its redemptive moments — most notably a sobering and engrossing timeline of surveillance that ranges from spies in ancient Egypt to the surveillance architecture of the panopticon to fingerprinting, and on and on. It mentions other surveillance-minded artists (Omer Fast, Trevor Paglen), but omits many more, including Julia Scher, whose work has centered explicitly on surveillance since the late 1980s.

Another iPad option raises a red flag: You can surveil people entering both parts of the artwork. Everyone is instructed to pause to be photographed, and we comply, without thought, leaving behind digital bread crumbs. Our photos appear on large screens lining the walls above the library tables. If you wonder about the fate of hundreds of thousands of images, including yours, gathered during this project’s two-month run, you need only turn over your ticket to see that your attendance counts as consent to have your image or likeness appear in any video display or reproduction by the work’s creators, who own the project’s archive. Given the initial experience, that is not a thrilling prospect, but at least I won’t have to be there.

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