Myron Helfgott: Recent Multi-Media Installations
Sculpture Magazine, November 2009
In recent years Myron Helfgott has developed a series of room-sized sculptural installations whose visual elements are, in a sense, held together by audio sound tracks. These audio tracks are carefully orchestrated by Helfgott so as to draw viewers psychologically into the work to hear the tracks. The result is to draw the work out, to slow the viewing process by enticing viewers to linger and listen. Encountering these multi-media works at Art6 Gallery in Richmond, Virginia, where they were shown recently, I was reminded of the 19th-century custom of placing a single work of art in a room, by itself, so viewers would be encouraged to examine it in detail. Frederick Church did this with his large painting Heart of the Andes. I mention this not because Church made a small fortune charging a fee to the large crowds who came to see it, but because it seems that in those days viewers had a different relationship to works of art than do most contemporary viewers who, as museum studies show, typically spend a measly three or four seconds in front of a work of art. Not so in the past when viewers evidently took time with works of art.
Whether or not Myron Helfgott is mindful of this 19th-century custom I do not know. What is clear, however, is that his new sculptural installations seek to establish a different sort of relationship between the viewer and the work of art, one that is intended, in some sense or other, to make the viewer a more engaged, a more active rather than passive agent, what I would call a genuine beholder. Part of Helfgott’s strategy, it may or may not be conscious, is to present the viewer with groupings of objects that often seem disparate and unconnected to each other. Some are three-dimensional objects the artist has carefully crafted of wood; some are store-bought/“found” objects such as a coffee mug, a ceramic Buddha figurine that revolves, and a Buddha lightbulb; and some are photographs and other two-dimensional images appropriated from a variety of sources, some of which are personal and some popular culture.
While combining handmade and kitsch objects with appropriated images automatically lends an air of informality to these works, the way Helfgott organizes these elements intentionally reinforces this informality. For instance, his appropriated images appear casually hung on the wall in clusters and his three-dimensional elements, if not placed directly on the floor, are usually on stools, never on museum-style pedestals. One gets the sense that these works are improvisations, that they might move around and rearrange themselves at any moment.
This, however, is not to suggest these works don’t make sense, that they don’t have something to say. Rather, it is to say Helfgott intentionally keeps his visual elements loose so as to hint at some kind of narrative structure buried within the work without actually having to clarify it and pin it down. He just doesn’t want to completely commit himself, or the viewer, to any single interpretation, preferring instead to simply point in a direction and leave it at that.
Such a strategy, what I would term “suspended narration,” is successful in these works because of the way Helfgott integrates audio/sound tracks with his visual elements. Comprised of spoken text, musical passages, and various background noises, these audio tracks not only hold the visual elements together (though always in a somewhat tenuous manner), they also make the element of time and important part of the viewing experience. In this way they play a crucial role in altering our normal relationship to the work of art, changing it from that of simply viewing to something more akin to beholding.
For example, in The Feel of the Thing, Not the Think of It (2008), Helfgott presents a series of twelve over-life-size photographic portraits that are coarsely stapled around carefully fabricated three-dimensional wooden armatures. The contrast between the armatures and the casual, even crude, method of mounting the images onto them is intended to undercut any traces of beauty that may have accidently crept into the work. Even the way the artist stuffs them into a room so viewers can barely negotiate around them, ensures that they are not treated as precious objects, as things simply made for aesthetic delectation. The viewer is expected to “take in” the objects as well as the accompanying audio track of aphorisms, usually quips about art, that apparently are being spoken by the portraits’ sitters. What becomes evident (and this is true of the other works in the Art6 show as well) is that Helfgott’s strategy of incorporating an audio track is to make a unity of seeing and hearing so that spatial and temporal modes of knowing become essential elements in beholding the work.
In the installation Buddha Wisdom/What Women Have Told Me (2005-06), we are lured into the piece by the audio (almost against our will) to try to make sense of what is being said. Like it or not, we become party to a strange, disjunctive conversation in which we overhear several female voices speak of their longings and discontentments (mostly sexual). I say overhear because we are cast into the role of voyeurs, people eavesdropping in on the unguarded musings of a cast of characters who do not know of our presence and therefore, do not address us. Their remarks, also spoken unbeknownst to each other, are personal and private and directed at a lone male voice, presumably that of the artist and the ego-centric core of the piece. From what we overhear of their words, which are as languid and soft as the musical background they are set against, we are left to wonder how one man could disappoint so many women. (Is it really possible?) Surely it is telling that the male voice only occasionally connects to what these women say. When it does it seems more by chance than by intention.
Since all of the voices are detached and disembodied, even that of the male voice, we have no idea to whom they belong and which of the objects in the installation belong to them. We are left to speculate on whether they exist solely in the artist’s mind, a mind presumably symbolized by the large, looming torso that is part Buddha and part Easter Island totem. It dominates the “scene” and seems to hold the smaller elements (including the female voices) in its spell as if it has conjured them into existence by a force of will.
Helfgott uses a slightly different strategy in Science Fiction/My Anxieties (2006). This work, the title of which is significant, is constructed around an audio track of a party scene in which background noises and singing become a “sound-track.” Pervading the work is the sense of an inner dialogue, that of a male protagonist whose voice the beholder becomes “privileged” to hear. The spaces, gaps, and silences in the voice-track, which includes several female speakers, have the effect of complicating the beholder’s position, shifting it back and forth from that of someone spoken to by the male voice to someone again eavesdropping in on the private conversations of others. While the questions posed by the male voice are of a personal nature, almost a kind of self-examination, they also have universal aspects to them in the insecurities and the existential anxieties they express. There is a feeling that the speaker is speaking in order to reaffirm his existence in the world, even as he examines his past. His questions are addressed as much to himself as to us, making us intimates on a psychological level in what is basically an existential drama.
The large, out-of-focus image of the artist that dominates Science Fiction/My Anxieties underscores the central theme of the work–an examination of the self as it has coalesced through and around all of the associations, real and imaginary, intellectual and physical, rational and emotional, that make up a life. They are represented by the images and various objects, including a ceramic Buddha, that comprise the visual components of the work. However, if the smiling Buddha figurine symbolizes wisdom, the beholder is left to ponder the inevitable juxtaposition created between it and the out-of-focus portrait of the artist. It is as if even the Buddha is taken into the orbit of the artist thereby making the artist the main protagonist of his own work just as he inevitably is of his own life. Everyone and everything, it seems, revolves around this face, pierced as it is by cut-out silhouettes of female figures that, evidently, are meant to conjure up memories of relationships and desires past. Ultimately, the singing and background noises of people partying belie the “alone-in-the-crowd” mood that seems to drift through and around this piece.
In all of the works in this exhibition Helfgott is careful to avoid anything that smacks of the sentimental or the overly refined and conventional (i.e., the predictable aesthetic devices). There is no reliance on graceful line or elegant form or a precious turn of phrase. He relies, instead, on a direct and often brutal honesty. This is clear in the way he assembles his visual and aural components to unflinchingly probe areas and feelings that are often of a deeply personal nature and yet, still have relevance for the beholder. I think this is a conscious strategy on Helfgott’s part so that the beholder is prevented from somehow becoming an aloof and disinterested person, a true voyeur. And this is how a social dimension creeps into the work. By making the beholder privy to things that seem so private as to be almost confessional, feelings of discomfort and unease are triggered making it difficult, if not impossible, for any reasonably attentive person to maintain a sense of detachment. And when we pay attention to the lives of others, to the “stories” that make up their life-world, as it were, we not only enlarge ourselves, we become social beings, members of that larger community that exists beyond the individual self.
Howard Risatti, professor emeritus of contemporary art and critical theory at Virginia Commonwealth University.