Ján Mančuška, installation view, November 21, 2008 – January 10, 2009, Andrew Kreps Gallery
An accumulation of deliberate false starts, Ján Mančuška’s third solo exhibition at Andrew Kreps furthered his exploration of the theatrical space of art as diffracted by design. The video Reflection (all works 2008) begins with a man and woman carrying out a Beckettian go-nowhere dialogue in which they ponder whether anything can be “seen” in a nearby dark space, qualifying each other’s lines with such novelistic rejoinders as “he said after a while” and “she answered.” With the brisk pace of seasoned performers (and wielding British stage accents), the pair ably enacts the twists and turns of melodramatic dénouement minus the revelation or sentiment inherent to it. And though their exchange repeatedly invokes the off-camera (or, as Deleuze more accurately termed it l’hors champ, the out-of-field) as portending an eventual catharsis through disclosure (“I saw almost nothing there,” the woman says; “She answered. Do you think nothing can be there still?,” the man says), Mančuška wryly inserts long silent shots between the couple’s scenes that confirm the nearby space to be only a room filled with furniture and lighting fixtures.
Projected between nearly ceiling-high walls of stacked furniture—modernist consoles, liquor cabinets, and shelves cut to fit together like puzzle pieces—the video was housed in an absurd domestic space that mirrored the used contents of the room on screen while intimating that the sputtering tropes of dramatic convention are equally bereft. Reinforcing this parity, slow zooms and tracking shots, techniques most often employed to heighten mood and locate impending action, frame instead an array of secondhand chandeliers, or a black leather couch and an end table. Further emphasizing the characters’ inability to emote or articulate anything beyond a play of transitions, a demonstrably poor actress with an American accent stands in for the woman in the couple’s final repartee, in which we hear once more that nothing has been seen.
Similarly fitful attempts to achieve clarity transpire in the video’s second act, as two men in a Prague café try to recall their initial meeting and their mutual acquaintances. Banal failures of memory and identification—“What are their names?” and “He really looks like someone else, practically his double”—serve as fodder for a comic routine in which the punchline never arrives. Unable to find direction, the actors, the prototypical “preppy” and “slacker,” exist in an almost impotent state alleviated only by the sudden appearance of the characters from the video’s otherwise unrelated first half. Yet as the clean-cut actor stands to greet the approaching couple, the female, played again by the stand-in, addresses the unkempt, oblivious character: “I’ve seen you somewhere before,” she says, thereby diverting any farcical resolution and reasserting the action’s fragmented misdirection.
Located in the back of the gallery, the installation Someone Else? Carried on the domestic mode, offering wall-mounted display cases holding various housewares on which still another dialogic exercise in futility was printed. Pitchers, creamers, mugs, sugar bowls, and the occasional teapot and ashtray serve in this work as a storyboard for the balky scenario of a man and woman meeting for an undisclosed purpose. The reason for the tryst is hinted at but never revealed, and the he-said-she-said of the elliptical narrative ends humorously with the woman asking after a third cup: “Are you expecting someone else?”
Previously overindebted to early Conceptual tactics of literalizing language’s shortcomings, Mančuška has developed here an art of the set configuration, a scripted installation form all his own, in which the viewer encounters both a failure of subjectivity and a droll repurposing of serial form.
In the most involved scenario of the trio, Untitled (2008), the artist departed from a trompe l’oeil photograph found in a 1971 science textbook, intended to show how visual perception works. Lassry replicated the floor diagram of the house-like structure—painted in a Josef Albers-esque combination of light blue and yellow—and engaged three young women and a man to interact with the optical illusion. Negotiating their positions in order to maintain the illustrative effect, the models held poses and repeated gestures for the camera in scenes that resembled a commercial audition.
Employing again what appeared to be industry professionals, Lassry accumulated gestures and highly staged interactions in durations that disrupted their potential use-value as commercial images: a windowpane framed a man and woman mouthing melodramatic dialogue; a woman struggled to hold her pose in the illusion’s doorway, falling in and out of character; while another model flashed her perfect smile over and over. Perhaps the least amenable to the triptych format, this piece nonetheless intimated the possibility of a more overt, sustained engagement with theater in future projects.