Josiah McElheny: The Crystal Land
From March 1 to April 13, 2017, White Cube will present The Crystal Land by Josiah McElheny at South Galleries, Bermondsey. The Crystal Land narrates a decade of Josiah McElheny’s efforts to visualise alternative histories of Modernism, presenting works made between 2008 and 2017 in various mediums, including sculpture, painting, film, installation, photograms and posters. The exhibition asserts McElheny’s view that reconstructing history can be a creative process in itself and aesthetics are always political.
The exhibition is divided into three distinct sections, each of which is inspired by the artist Robert Smithson, the writer Paul Scheerbart and the physicist Andrei Linde.
In the first part of the exhibition, McElheny draws on some of Robert Smithson’s lesser-known works and writing from 1964 to 1966, including his essay The Crystal Land which was published in Harpers Bazaar in 1966 and from which the exhibition borrows its title. Smithson’s series of paintings from that same period; reflective plexiglass and painted metal, fashioned into three-dimensional crystalline constructions, complicated the prevailing Modernist rejection of painting as a window into the world and assertion of painting as a pure surface.
McElheny, using Robert Smithson’s works as models, he has created his own series of landscape paintings, taking the form of faceted wall reliefs constructed out of painted metal and glass mirror with illuminated interior chambers. Inside these chambers, infinitely repeating images of crystalline, abstract reflective shapes recede into the distance. Interspersed among these paintings are a series of new anti-vortex drawings in which lines appear to float inside glass against a fractured mirrored background, and a group of silver gelatin photograms studies for new crystalline forms in which geometric shapes extend into the black. In these works, McElheny proposes that an imaginary world could be something physical after all.
In the second part of the exhibition, after the intimate vistas of McElheny’s paintings, he offers a different kind of contemplation through the combination of image and language. Here, movie posters beckon the audience into a glass cinema, whose subtle, multi-colored light emanating from glass-block windows sets the tone for the film playing inside. The Light Club of Vizcaya: A Women’s Picture (2012), emerged out of McElheny’s interest in the work of Paul Scheerbart and is part of his effort to bring the German author’s writing into the 21st-century – a project that includes the publication of two scholarly books on Scheerbart as well as a series of sculptures, drawings and performances based on his ideas.
McElheny develops Paul Scheerbart’s short story The Light Club of Batavia: A Ladies’ Novelette (1912). The film is a fantastic tale of a group of socialites who meet at a hotel in Batavia now known as Jakarta and decides to build a spa at the bottom of an abandoned mineshaft so that they can bathe in light. With a script written by Canadian poet Rachel Zolf and a voice-over narrated by the artist Zoe Leonard, McElheny presents a poetic speculative expansion of Scheerbart’s original text, re-staging it in a different locale to create a story-within-a-story that playfully deals with themes of gender, sexuality, society and nature. Presenting an alternative view of Modernism, as experienced by a female protagonist, the work deals with Scheerbart’s notion of Universalist politics as a wholly possible path of history. It proposes that Modernism might have been redirected from efficiency and restraint to expand the concept of the human.
In the third part of the exhibition, the scale of McElheny’s models for worlds expands to its largest possible size with the installation Island Universe (2008). Fusing art, science, information and materiality, the installation sets out to describe the world, the universe, and the multiverse as a set of infinite, individual possibilities and interpretations. Appearing like a magnificent set of constellations, it comprises five suspended sculptures made from chrome-plated aluminum and glass encoded with highly accurate scientific information. The project was inspired by the aesthetically hybrid, starburst forms of nickel-plated brass and cut-glass crystal chandeliers of the Metropolitan Opera in New York, which were produced by the design company Lobmeyr in Vienna in 1965 and combine both 19th-century and modernist motifs.
McElheny saw them as a pop image of the Big Bang and in an extensive collaboration with the astronomer David H Weinberg; he went on to create models that depict various alternative interpretations of this event. In Island Universe, he presents a set of possible universes through sculptures whose every element have their own individual, cosmological equivalent. Creating multiple reflections of their own forms, the viewer’s body and the space of the gallery in which they hang. They show us a universe without hierarchy where an infinite number of unique, true histories of the world can coexist.
The Super 16mm film Island Universe from 2005 to 2008, shot on location at the Metropolitan Opera, is presented on a continuous loop in the auditorium every Sunday for the duration of the exhibition.