by Jonathan Griffin
CCA Wattis Institute, San Francisco
We all know that Random International’s Rain Room (2012), drawing crowds most recently at MoMA, and Carsten Holler’s slides, coming soon to the Hayward Gallery, signal the end of days for art. Or at least that’s the established view amongst the cognoscenti. Hands-on experiences in art galleries, the argument goes, turn the brain off.
Josephine Pryde’s exhibition at CCA Wattis, lapses in Thinking By the person i Am (her capitalization) is both interactive and intellectual. In fact, it might be understood as a distinctly ironic send-up – there’s a little train! And you can ride on it as it choo-choos around the gallery! – of those kinds of fun, participatory artworks that get families queuing at the museums.
Pryde’s train, a realistic 1:10 scale model of a Union Pacific freight locomotive pulling two graffitied boxcars, is not a happy engine. Titled The Hungry Messenger (2015), the train can be operated to trundle at a sedate pace from one end of a u-shaped track to the other, before it reverses dolefully back again. A concealed speaker emits engine noises and whistle blasts. For visitors who choose to sit on the pads atop the boxcars as it completes its Sisyphean journey, it is a confounding and bathetic experience.
While riding, viewers roll by a row of nineteen evenly spaced photographs, each showing a woman’s hands touching something. The pictures are cropped to remove heads, so they might show one woman or many, Pryde or a model. In about half of the images, the object being handled is an example of touch-sensitive technology: smartphones, tablets, or – in two pictures – a touch sensitive, dimmable lamp. These are interspersed, as titles such as Gift Für Mich, Galerie Neu Christmas 2014 (1) (2015) explain, with photographs of hands holding gifts to the artist from her dealers.
To force connections between these discrete artworks would be crass and disrespectful. Pryde is a subtle and evasive meaning-maker. However, to the meditative passenger, certain rhythms make themselves felt. The notion that touch, in our present technological moment, is itself a form of thinking – or seeing – is suggested in these (untouchable, glazed) photographs and then complicated by the touchable and old-fashioned train, one that itself has been touched by the spray cans of imaginary, miniature taggers. In this the train becomes a conveyor of language, a hulking, primitive message-board that sends words to their unseen destination.
To ride The Hungry Messenger is to surrender control, just as receiving gifts, or slick photographic images, or information from a smartphone all require certain kinds of surrender. Pryde’s photographs seem to allude to those states of mind in which, through opening ourselves to one kind of data, we find ourselves letting in another kind instead – moments such gazing out of a train window, looking at the landscape, scrolling through emails, while thinking about something else entirely.
First published: Art Review, Summer 2015