Happily after Hereafter, at Mercer Union
I haven't been here in a while, so for the next little while, I'm catching up on my laggard ways by visiting things that are closer to over than not. Case in point: Brenda Goldstein's installation at Mercer Union, Hereafter, opened almost a month ago; and while I'm not overjoyed to be such a late arrival, I walked out of the gallery yesterday feeling lucky to have seen it at all.
This is simple, gentle, emotional, but visceral stuff. In Mercer's back gallery, Goldstein projects the two elements of her piece on opposite walls. On one, sloppily-typed transcripts of interviews with hospice workers, who attend to terminal patients in their final hours; and on the other, a sterile scene of a technician preparing a body for burial -- so sterile, in fact, that the body has to be assumed; whatever she's working on is judiciously out of frame, invisible.
Goldstein performs a delicate balancing act here that is at once oppositional and complementary; the narratives, tapped out on an old-fashioned typewriter, are gripping -- some tragic, others comforting (one tells of a withered woman, near death, whose family regards her from a safe distance, unwilling to touch or even come close; another unfurls the gentle coping strategy of a counsellor who encourages families to gather close as the deceased nears his or her end. "'Do things you would normally do. Bring children in,'" the text reads. "That's one of the things we find, is that if children are left out there, then dying again becomes that thing that happens in a room somewhere."
At the same time, the methodical work of preparing the corpse comes across not as gruesome, but as simple, necessary -- a part of life. Standing in the darkened gallery space, the clack of the 35 mm film loop offering a certain warmth and comfort, you're not so much focused on death, but the fact that you're alive -- and how precious, and fleeting, it is.
Anyway, all this not to forgot that the bulk of Mercer's space is currently occupied by David Beattie, a young Irish artist who's currently in Pittsburgh doing a residency at the Mattress Factory. The shows aren't paired in any kind of comprehensive way, but they provide a nice foil: Where Goldstein is all emotionally affecting gravitas, Beattie's work here is lighter than air, freeing quotidienne mechanicals from their intended function and re-employing them in quirkily charming, largely useless tasks.
Have a look at Drumroll, above, in which Beattie employs a tiny motor to run a perpetual circuit around a toy drum. Fixed with a plastic bag, the motor treads lightly along the object's surface, striving to progress and always seeming to, but its delicate journey always slightly in doubt.
It's kind of mesmerizing, watching and waiting for it to fail; there's something being said here, I suppose, about contemporary society's reliance on simple machines for everything from making toast and coffee to staying 30,000 feet above the ground (barring unforeseen ash clouds, that is), and Beattie is hardly the first to make the point.
But a gently cheeky minimalism -- I'm thinking Dan Flavin's fluroescent tube sculptures -- and a dollop of the Duchampian ready-made are stirred in with Beattie's own interest in functional systems, yielding a practice laden with references but still entirely his own.
The bag creeps slowly around the drum; nearby, a water jug with a tiny perforation is suspended above a hot plate, surrending droplets that vaporize on impact (Beattie's title: Cloudmaker); in another corner, a selection of cyclinders -- some stone, some brass, some plastic -- clatter happily, set in motion by the innards of a vibrating toy. Beattie's pervasive sense of play and charm are entirely engaging, puzzling and most importantly, filled with wonder. I'd encourage you to have a look before it all comes down May 1.