Purchase Not by Moonlight (Review)

Chasing Anri Sala's echoes at the CAC

Critic's Pick

Anri Sala’s solo exhibition, Purchase Not by Moonlight, fills two floors of the Contemporary Arts Center (CAC) with sound, light and tactile objects. One work in particular confuses and simultaneously conflates the others. It’s not at the beginning of the exhibition, nor is it at the end.

It isn’t what the viewer expects to find among the pulsing drums and flashing black-and-white films. It’s a small kinetic sculpture — a pair of hands sheathed in purple latex gloves, index fingers pointing toward each other, revolving slowly around an axis.

The full rotation takes about two minutes. For about 10 seconds, as the hands tumble into a starting position, the latex gloves fill with air so the hands look “fit and gracious,” according to Sala. The rest of the time only the index fingers are solid, while the rest of the hand looks “limp and fallen.” Appropriately, the artist has named this work “Title Suspended.”

Indeed, suspension is a major aspect of the piece, and suspension leads to a sense of anticipation. The hands hang away from the wall, the two index fingers moving around each other but never meeting. No matter the direction, the fingers point most emphatically to the negative space between them.

That idea of negative space is important in Sala’s work, and Purchase Not by Moonlight is full of it. Most of the time, however, it is not so literal. The exhibition roots itself in light and sound — short films that flash at the viewer, drum beats that drown out voices — not tactile objects.

According to CAC literature, “All the films together are presented as a unified installation and could almost be considered a single artwork. Videos, photographs, as well as drums are dispersed throughout the space existing within a tailored environment.”

It’s important to note that the CAC — specifically Director and Senior Curator Raphaela Platow — partnered with the Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami (MoCA) in the conception of Purchase Not by Moonlight. Sala himself worked with both institutions to create this, his first major U.S. museum show. As such, the institutions became a major part of the work — Sala used architecture not as a space to simply exhibit his work, but, as he told author Hans Ulrich Obrist, as a way to “release the space.”

“When you’re offered a show and given a space to work with, it is an invitation,” Sala said. “My concern is how to invite the space back.”

Anyone who has visited the CAC knows about echoes. Often, the echoes in the Zaha Hadid-designed building are plainly a detriment to the work inside, jumbling gallery spaces, causing bewilderment in visitors.

It seems that Sala was acutely aware of this fact when he re-designed the show for the CAC. The main sound element — the persistent rhythm (or cacophony, however you might perceive it) of drums — runs through both floors and transforms the space, and all that the space encompasses, into one solid artwork. The echoes within the building serve to strengthen Sala’s message, rather than detract from it.

Building upon that notion, Sala has placed several unmanned drums in the gallery spaces, kinetic sculptures whose sticks play themselves gently, creating a rhythm of silence. The drums are there to remind the viewer of the wholeness of the space: The idea of one thing.

And yet each film is unique and powerful alone, and each undeniably has something to do with echoes. The most obvious example of this motif lies in “Lak-kat” (the title translates into English as “gibberish”). In this film, young children learn language. A teacher says a word or a phrase; the children repeat it. The children are thus literal echoes of their teacher.

The film, however, becomes uncomfortable as the viewer realizes that it’s not just language these children are echoing. It’s also bigotry and stereotyping. The words are in Senegalese, but the film is subtitled. Great white hope, the children say. The darkest thing. Repeating and repeating until the words themselves, heavy with meaning, but already abstracted to an American or European audience, become just more sounds.

“Answer Me,” perhaps the loudest film in the exhibition, and in some sense the quietest, places the viewer into a frustrated negative space. In this work, a couple exists together in an otherwise empty geodesic dome, where echoes reverberate without hindrance against the building’s shell. The man faces a wall and plays the drums. The video focuses on his eyes, or his back rather than his hands.

We see that he is concentrating on the music. His apparent lover, in an attempt to end their relationship, is clearly speaking to him. Sometimes we can almost hear her, but not quite. Her lips form silent words. “It’s over. Admit it,” she says. “Answer me!” The echoes of the man’s drumming frustrate her words, which never get through to him.

The echo in Sala’s work not only serves to disrupt human engagement but also to add a sense of placement to the viewer. It leads and follows, confuses and makes sense. Such an oxymoron shouldn’t make sense. But it does. Especially in light of Sala’s own description, as told to Platow: “I went for a very loud silence, a loudness that silences.”

ANRI SALA: PURCHASE NOT BY MOONLIGHT continues at the CAC through August. Get gallery details and find nearby restaurants and bars here.

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