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MFA’s ‘Flashes’ Lackluster

New multimedia exhibit bewilders more than it delights

By Kimberly A. Kicenuik, Crimson Staff Writer

Looking at a work by Cerith Wyn Evans is a bit like strolling through Harvard Square half-asleep. It’s eclectic, disorienting and mildly overwhelming—too surreal to be completely logical but realistic enough to be convincing. Just when you think you know exactly where you are on Mass. Ave.—just when you think you finally understand Evans’ aesthetic universe—everything turns blurry, foreign and confusing.

We owe this strange fusion of reality and fantasy in large part to the artist’s unconventional method and media, both of which have given Evans a reputation for surveying issues of modern communication and perception.

After graduating from London’s Royal College of Art in 1984, Evans began exploring the complex interplay of words and images, often combining multi-media with eclectic textual sources to erode traditional boundaries between the two.

Nowhere was this signature tendency more prominent than in Evans’s 2001 installation accompanying the William Blake exhibit at Tate Britain, where a computer was rigged to translate randomly-selected snippets of Blake’s poetry into Morse code.

And as if the conversion of romantic poetry to electric signals weren’t avant-garde enough—a disco ball suspended from the ceiling then projected this encoded verse onto the gallery walls, inundating viewers in a dizzying whirlpool of light and color.

With somewhat forced results, Evans harkens back to his Blake experiment in his latest installment, “Flashes of insight from an intriguing philosopher-artist,” on display at the Museum of Fine Arts through Jan. 30. Like Evans’ earlier work, the exhibit incorporates words, lights and the latest technology to create a somewhat bewildering dialogue between the viewer and art object.

But before this familiar exchange between audience, words and images can even begin, a large circular mirror positioned at the exhibit’s entrance inverts and replicates the image of everyone entering the gallery—immediately establishing the sense of disorientation and fancy that have become Evans’ trademarks.

The main installation consists of seven crystal chandeliers, all from different periods, sporadically pulsing Morse code versions of a series of texts. This time though, computers mounted on the gallery walls take the place of the disco ball, displaying in readable form excerpts from a wide variety of cinematic, literary and philosophical sources.

The overall effect is initially amusing—I was reminded of a laser show, as white light flashes across the space, lingering in some places for several seconds while erupting in a brusque and syncopated rhythm in others.

But after a few minutes of constant flashing, the effect becomes irritating and gimmicky—like someone incessantly flicking the light switch on and off. And while this device clearly attests to the complexities of modern communication, traditionally one of Evans’ points of interest, it somewhat detracts from the viewer’s interaction with the texts themselves—making it more difficult to read the screens displaying Evans’ appropriated passages.

Not that the words themselves are all that inspiring or coherent to begin with. Many, like an excerpt from Merrill’s The Changing Light at Sandover and an essay on Judith Butler, are too lengthy and obscure to hold one’s attention for long, despite Evans’ claims that they were “reservoirs of possible meanings that…unravel many discursive journeys.” Far more amusing are the pop up boxes displayed on all the monitors warning that Windows had insufficient virtual memory.

Yet even this statement seemed contrived and a bit overdone. Like the flickering lights, the text is entertaining for the first moment or two, before it becomes too inflated to support its far-too-deliberately-encoded theoretical message about language. It’s as if Evans knows he is making some sort of profound statement of communication—and in that knowledge loses the ability to interest the viewer for any extended period.

Just beyond the chandelier installation, an entire room is devoted to photographs taken by Evans’ late father. The photographs themselves are not that interesting and seem out of place amidst Evans’ other more convincing statements on appropriation and originality.

The artist admits this dissonance in a way, when he explains, “This is me playing curator with my dad’s work; he never would have had a show in such an august institution.” That’s cute, but even more distracting and random.

Another unimpressive display was just as arbitrary and unbefitting. This one involved a fragment of an old coaxial cable in a vitrine. The exhibition text argued that Evans believed the object to be a portion of the cable belonging to the phone used by Marcel Duchamp during his stay in the United States.

The origins of the cable are spurious to begin with—and so is the plaque’s claim that Evans’ appropriation of the cable is a modern statement on Duchamp’s ready-made movement. The idea of the ready-made is to take everyday objects out of their everyday contexts. But in this piece, Evans has already admitted to believing in the extraordinary origins of the cable. Once again—a self-righteous tribute to the not so exciting or insightful.

While “Flashes” has its moments and points of interest, its lacks a crucial coherence and substance. In light of its random and gimmicky nature—it’s not surprising that it is also a first—Evan’s first solo museum survey in the United States.

—Staff writer Kimberly A. Kicenuik can be reached at kicenuik@fas.harvard.edu.

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