Greene Naftali, New York
12 January–10 February 2001
Curated by Sima Familant
Reviewed by Karen Rosenberg

Henry David Thoreau would seem an unlikely spokesman for contemporary art. In his 1845 book Walden he wrote, ‘It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful, but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts…I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavour…to live deliberately.’

The small but ambitious group show ‘Deliberate Living’ tries hard to bring Thoreau up to date, applying his ideal of heightened awareness to a conceptual and minimal context. Attempting to sidestep the decorative and superficial, the works in ‘Deliberate Living’ appeal to our quest for contemplative space, for living without taking life for granted. One cannot help feeling that Thoreau proselytized ‘deliberate living’ at the expense of more spontaneous experience, but his theme contextualizes issues of time and consciousness in a diverse group of contemporary works.

Opening the exhibition is Darren Almond’s Border (1999), two bus stop signs marking the entrance and exit to ‘Oswiecim’ – Auschwitz. Ironically, a related work appeared in the Royal Academy’s ‘Apocalypse’, signaling a very different interpretation of Almond’s concern with the ellipses of time and space. Here, the emphasis is on the threshold embodied by the close placement of these signs, they form a corridor just wide enough for a single viewer. This work speaks to the futile solipsism inherent to truly ‘deliberate living’, the tantalizing but impossible ideal of an area outside time and history. Tom Burr’s The Oblong Box (2001), tries to create this sort of liminal zone, referencing the claustrophobic mental space of an Edgar Allan Poe poem. Peeking around the minimal shell of his black box, we find a stark interior set off by a single red ashtray. But unlike Almond’s sculpture, Burr’s loses its impact after the initial experience.

Nearby, Andre Cadere’s A.…3×10 (1978), uses subtler tactics to evoke a reflective mood. An unassuming string of colored wooden beads mounted on the wall, it appears to be a fragment of some larger design. Cadere was a contemporary of Daniel Buren, and displayed his ‘Bars of Wood’ unconventionally as Buren did with his stripes, suggesting an infinite whole that may never be contained. Unlike Buren, however, Cadere sought to avoid regular patterns, stringing his beads with intentional errors. As with the phenomenon of pi, there is a hint that some pattern might emerge if we could only widen our scope enough to discern it, but also the possibility that randomness extends into infinity.

While Cadere questions Thoreau’s brand of transcendental faith, another master of understatement affirms it. Felix Gonzales-Torres’ completed jigsaw puzzle, printed with a grainy landscape, implies the existence of a larger picture. Gonzales-Torres is an ideal choice for this show as his work so often has that quality, in Thoreau’s words, of a ‘life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour.’ Cosima von Bonin has referenced the work of Cadere and Bas Jan Ader, but her contribution to ‘Deliberate Living’ is one of the show’s weaker links. A soft sculpture of a fence, fashioned in peachy-tan Laura Ashley fabric, it has a whimsical, folk-art sensibility that vaguely evokes the pastoral virtues of Walden, but feels lightweight in the meditative context of the other works. Helen van Meene’s staged photographs of girls on the cusp of adolescence risk this sort of preciousness; one doe-eyed victim poses, literally and figuratively, with a leg over the fence.

There’s no painting in the show, a choice only partially explained by Thoreau’s bias against decoration, but film and projection step in to fill the void. The Dutch team De Rijke/De Rooij offer one of the more stylishly indulgent works with Chun Tien (Spring), a short film of a young Asian couple experiencing a personal yet abstract declaration of love. Surrounded by lush blossoms, they exchange words and stare at one another in turn but never make eye contact. These out-of-sync lovers suggest that there is no such ting as a shared moment. Even at times of greatest feeling, each person is isolated, in effect, by the uniqueness of his or her relationship to nature. While the film’s exoticism is troubling, Chun Tien hints at the solitude that accompanies a deliberate life.

Bas Jan Ader’s Untitled (Swedish Fall) (1971), is the oldest work in the show, and somehow presides over all the others. It consists of two slides projected onto perpendicular walls. The first shows Ader standing in the woods, while in the second he has collapsed on the ground. Ader often explored the act of falling with greater immediacy, in performances and blurred-motion photos, so this piece appears oddly static. Nevertheless, it taps into something primal, achieving formal poetry and mythological resonance. Ader’s fallen figure remains ambiguous; is he a gravity-defying Icarus or someone who approaches the act as an existential experiment? Like the other successful works in ‘Deliberate Living”, Ader’s brings us face-to-face with the paradox of Thoreau’s aggressive and journalistic approach to life: ‘I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life’, he writes, ‘to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swathe and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.

Can life really be investigated so thoroughly, reduced to its lowest terms, by a living person? To do so is to sacrifice a considerable part of one’s own experience, time and energy that can never be reclaimed. Through works that combine conceptual rigor with aesthetic pleasure, the artists in ‘Deliberate Living’ seem to grasp a truth that eludes Thoreau to make a point of living deliberately is to miss the point of having life.