Domestic Disturbance

If you rearrange the furniture, do you become someone else?

The most basic idea behind "room" is that in the electronic age, walls no longer confine us or protect us, and "interior" is now defined virtually (by what the catalog calls "a global metropolis") rather than physically. In other words, we are always "inside" a constructed, man-made world, which Farokhi symbolizes as pollution. I'm not sure quite what to make of her luscious yet oddly pedestrian paintings -- one of a cow grazing, another of Farokhi from the back, looking out over a mountain view. Like the rest of the show, the paintings' production values are stratospheric, but their potentially pastoral quality is firmly canceled by the yellow-brown, brackish color that counts for a sky. A third painting is a darkly romantic cityscape, with refinery chimneys rising gracefully against a lurid orange evening. Above, a mass of black smog spreads like the cape of a vampire, ready to wrap the whole affair in a baroque embrace. These are postcards from the global metropolis, views that didactically illustrate how the city preys on the country.

If this sour and sullen atmosphere forms the "walls" of our new interior, then the television is the window. Movable furniture or no, when I saw the TV I quickly became a Menil couch potato. Or rather, an ultrasuede-chair-with-rubbery-pipe-for-lumbar-support potato. Yum. The video in "room" is one of those arty, hyperedited, postmodern montage things, with footage of Farokhi's heartbeat, Houston, people working on the exhibit, junky white noise, corporate logos spinning toward the viewer like Ninja stars, a garbled recording of Lerup reading Watt. It's as self-reverential and personal as a window into your parents' bedroom. Usually I hate this kind of stuff, but Brian Heiss and Michael Morrow, two grad students at Rice, put in just the right amount of humor -- including episodes of "Buysum," a takeoff on the Home Shopping Network featuring products such as "Happiness" -- and tweaked the pacing to car-chase precision, creating a mesmerizing megachannel that does your surfing for you.

"room" attempts to serve the restless, nomadic and unconventional citizens of the global metropolis by offering the ability to manipulate their surroundings. If the tables and bookshelves are indeed little buildings, the city has come into the room and become our plaything, meeting much the same fate as Darius's Legos. (Photographs of his creations are displayed behind the Wobbly Wall, in a space that has been designated the "closet," with Lerup and Farokhi's studies.)

From the video to the furniture to the catalog, the energy in this show comes from people who like to make things. There's the expert deployment of technology, a confident pleasure in constructing objects that earn their pride by refusing to be completely servile. On top of that goes the conceptual scaffolding. It's not that I question the sincerity of the ideas -- the urge to foster domestic liberty is absolutely genuine. But I feel like I missed part of the argument -- why, if our world is destabilized, electronically shook up, permeable and changeable and virtual -- why does that mean I might want to trundle my sock drawers out to the kitchen?

As characters go, Beckett's Knott is an odd one. He looks different every day. He moves his furniture every day. His manner of hawking and spitting fluctuates, as does his hairdress. Is he a different person every day? Is there a Knott, and how can Watt be sure? And is that the deeper issue at work in "room"? That the megachannel changes us? In Watt, the idea is somewhat nerve-racking and sinister. In "room," the sinister is made pretty, lively and hopeful. It bites, yes, but it doesn't bite hard.

"room" is on view through June 6 at the Menil Collection, 1515 Sul Ross, (713)525-9400.

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