You see it all the time in art reviews: A writer will proclaim that a particular work compels the viewer to do so-and-so, or think such-and-such. But that's just hype and blather. Artists aren't totalitarian states or the superego that polices your psyche. What artists can do, however, is create a climate that subtly influences the point of view and even the actions of those who choose to view the work in an active, participatory way and then reflect on the experience.
At the Laguna Art Museum's South Coast Plaza satellite, Paul Kos' group of six installations--collectively called "BER LIN" --incorporates certain physical and psychological mechanisms designed to involve the viewer in the artist's concerns about freedom and constraint. Commissioned by the museum especially for this gallery space, "BER LIN" is by far the most searchingly intelligent and provocative show ever mounted there.
Other than the neon letters spelling out the title of the installation (divided to represent the division of the city into East and West sectors by the Berlin Wall), the piece that a viewer is first likely to encounter is "rEVOLUTION: Notes for the Invasion--mar mar march." Slats of wood cross the carpet at regular intervals. If you choose to enter the gallery, the length of your stride is regulated by those slats, since the normal thing to do is to step between them.
While you're stepping--conscious of the activity of walking, as you probably aren't when there's nothing in the way--you hear the sound of a typewriter typing in a regular rhythm. It's the aural accompaniment to a small video monitor with the image of a typewriter typing the words "mar mar march" over and over, and a woman in boots marching back and forth.
It seems natural to match your stride to the sound--natural, in other words, to "fall in" with a lock step established by the cadence of a completely arbitrary device. You are marching without being offered any real reason for doing so.
Like Alice in Lewis Carroll's "Through the Looking Glass," you have entered a world that seems to have its own rules. The next stop on this journey is "Rift," a piece that doesn't work as well as it should because of its awkward placement in the gallery. "Rift" is simply a narrow section that has been cut out of the gallery's wall-to-wall carpet.
The cut is a dividing line, a break in the natural order of things. But instead of serving as another forceful impediment, it doesn't really intrude on the viewer's path. You can walk around it--and dismiss it--too easily as you look up at the next element in Kos' master plan: "Just a Matter of Time."
There, a red light beams on a row of cuckoo clocks, each ticking away in an independent rhythm, like people whispering in a crowd. Instead of the usual weights for the clock movements, hammers and sickles dangle on metal chains. At seemingly random intervals, a clock will sound.
These irregular bursts of activity seem to be metaphors for the "voice" of the human spirit, speaking out--as we've seen in the past few months in Eastern Europe--to demand its freedom.
At the rear of the gallery, "Silenced Tongues"--conceived as a response to the Tian An Men Square massacre in China last spring--expands on Kos' overall theme with strikingly minimal means. The outlines of bells are etched on two large sheets of glass that lean against the gallery walls, illuminated by a low-hanging naked light bulb.
Etched on a third sheet of glass is the phrase, "When tongues are silenced only memory remains." The words repeat twice--via a shadow effect--on the wall behind the glass. When you step in front of the glass, your body obliterates one of the phrases but not the other two.
Kos' gorgeously subtle use of glass, light and line creates an apt metaphor for the workings of memory: seemingly fragile yet vivid and strong. The subtle orchestration of allusions to sound and silence and the use of shadow effects as visual "reverberations" give the piece a meditative quality.
The viewer's final encounter is likely to be with "Trotsky." A red stool stands on the gallery floor. High overhead, a pickax tied with a red cloth is stuck into the wall. The reference is to Soviet leader's 1940 murder by an ax-wielding Spanish Communist while in exile in Mexico.
A principal figure in the 1917 October Revolution who served as commissar for foreign affairs and war under Lenin, Trotsky began to speak out against repressive tendencies in the party in the early '20s. He was denounced by the Stalinist government and ultimately--in 1929--banished from his country. This piece is the most specifically history-bound of the six works, crystallizing the underlying issue of a political state conceived as a tool of freedom for the common man but subsequently manipulated into a tool of oppression.
Kos has said that he thinks of the six installations in the gallery as merely the "Eastern sector" of "BER LIN," which "includes every store and shop in South Coast Plaza." In other words, issues of freedom and repression are as relevant to the world of dazzling choice represented by a giant shopping mall as they are to countries struggling out of the yoke of communism. An obsession with material goods can blind us to the preciousness of the freedoms we have, as well as to elements of our society who want to distort them in the name of narrow-minded "morality."
"BER LIN" continues at the Laguna Art Museum South Coast Plaza satellite, 3333 Bristol St. in Costa Mesa, through April 29. Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays, and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays. Admission: free. Information: (714) 662-3366.