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Group Mentality

Do-Ho Suh's Floor allows visitors to walk all over the little people.
Contemporary Arts Museum

The idea of a crowd can conjure up visceral memories. One of the most unpleasant 45 minutes of my life was spent on a Russian tram so crowded I could lift my feet and remain standing. I could feel the hacking cough of the woman next to me, her diaphragm convulsing, forcing up and speckling my hair with what I was convinced were tuberculosis-laden particles of phlegm. She struggled to cover her mouth, but her arms were pinned to her sides. When I reached my stop, the mass of people slowly shifted and expelled me from its midst; it was as close to reliving the birth-canal experience as I ever want to get.

Crowds are a natural consequence of city life, whether on the street, at the mall or on a bus. They may come together for entertainment or they may gather for spectacles -- house fires, car wrecks, street mimes (in that order of disaster). The phrase "Join the crowd!" can be carefree or ominous. You could be meeting Archie and Jughead at the malt shop or practicing your salute in Nuremberg. Crowds may assemble to unite political wills into a bloc for social change; they may be liberators or vigilantes. Crowds can empower, offer anonymity, isolate or support.

"Subject Plural: Crowds in Contemporary Art," curated by Paola Morsiani, presents the work of 15 international artists who explore the idea of a crowd in all its many variations. Some of the strongest works are videos that document, manipulate or just include hordes as part of the performance.

Beat Streuli's Düsseldorf, Heinrich-Heine-Allee (1999) is black-and-white footage of what initially seems to be a rather dull street shot of people moving in front of the camera. As you linger on the images, however, the experience transforms into people-watching at its finest. The camera focuses on pedestrians as they line up for an escalator; they invariably glance down as they step on, then look up and glide out of the picture frame. The process becomes almost hypnotic. They seem to be presenting themselves for scrutiny when, in fact, nothing could be further from the truth. In true voyeuristic fashion, they are unaware of being watched. As they move in the anonymity of the crowd, their faces are introspective, their minds occupied with thoughts we can never know. As each person floats down and out of the screen, we scrutinize their faces, their hairstyles, their expressions and their dress for clues.

If you are a spectator what you're really doing is waiting for the accident to happen (1997), a nine-minute video by Francis Alÿs, follows the "life" of an empty plastic water bottle as it makes its way through the Zócalo in Mexico City. The bottle becomes almost anthropomorphized during its sometimes harrowing journey. The forlorn object occasionally pauses at the feet of people, before it is alternately blown, kicked by budding soccer stars or picked up as a kid bonks himself on the head with it. The bottle ultimately finds its way into traffic through human -- or, shall we say, kid -- intervention. The bottle skitters across and is buffeted back and forth in the street, as we wait breathlessly for it to emerge safely or be destroyed. It makes its way to the other side of the street just as the videographer is nailed by a car, and the camera falls and turns to static. The irony of the climax is delicious.

Creating a crowd of her own, Vanessa Beecroft arranges people in a gallery for taped performances. For Piano Americano (1996), a group of vacantly staring women totter on a variety of strap sandals, wearing a range of icky control-top panties and panty hose with matching bras. They sport identical bleached blond wigs. There is a slight variety in height, but the women are all young and attractive. Well, as attractive as you can be in beige control-top panty hose, which makes everyone look like an idiot. Is that her point? Seated in chairs in the foreground are two women in matching beige coatdresses. One has no makeup and white shoes; the other has red lipstick and red shoes. Does that mean something? All the women are white save for one black woman. Is this meaningful as well? A woman in a fluffy lime-green tulle dress sits on the floor to the side of the females in beige. A bright decorative vision in the mass of taupe? The models were instructed not to interact with one another, but the most interesting parts are when you catch them in the background making eye contact or whispering to each other in defiance of the artist's edict.

The video has a certain appeal; the tangible boredom of the women is strangely interesting, as is the tendency to look for differences between similarly garbed and coiffed figures. But it feels all over the place. The artist seems to be addressing a murky collection of ideas, none entirely successful. The stills on the wall outside the gallery are from a more recent video (2000), one that looks more resolved. The artist's vision seems tighter and more controlled with a compositionally arranged group of nude women made purposely similar in white body makeup and curly red wigs.

"Subject Plural" is a strong show overall, with standout two-dimensional and 3D works as well as the video. Do-Ho Suh's Floor (2000) is a glass platform supported by hundreds of tiny plastic figures, which becomes a kind of display pedestal for museum visitors. His "wallpaper" Who Am We? (2000) is even better. The surface appears to be faintly pixilated but, on closer inspection, turns out to be covered with tiny oval portraits -- 37,000 to be exact, scanned from the artist's high school yearbooks. There is a palpable click that happens as the dots on the paper transform into the little frozen heads. As you back away, the mass of identically posed individuals disappears again, receding like an aerial shot of a crowd.

Creating images packed with hundreds of people, Zhuang Hui takes civic portraits using an old 180-degree panoramic camera. In Commemorative Picture of Teachers and Students of Luoyang Police School, Henan Province, May 13, 1997, the artist includes himself on the end of the 7 1/4-inch by 53 1/2-inch photo, the only one not in uniform. The image of identically dressed and posed people creates a vision of the communist ideal of well-functioning unindividuated comrades working together for the common social good. The vintage equipment and black-and-white print make the contemporary photo and its ideas look both nostalgic and antiquated.

"Subject Plural," like its major theme, is crowded with ideas. To get into the spirit, you might want to take Metro to the museum.


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