Zilvinas Kempinas – Tinguely Museum

Published in the June 2014 issue of Sculpture Magazine

For any other artist’s work to stand out in the Tinguely Museum, a space that is already hyper-charged with multisensory stimuli, is an almost impossible feat. Tinguely’s found metal, enormous kinetic sculptures that boom and bang when activated are overwhelming in scale, style, and sound, and seem to subjugate the entire museum. However, the current retrospective by Lithuanian-born, New York-based artist, Zilvinas Kempinas, Slow Motion, shows us that awe can be more effectively elicited from discreet and modest means.

Kempinas’s kinetic sculptures and installations are placed in the existing exhibitions, with only a few works requiring separate spaces of their own. The integration of these sculptures into the galleries of the permanent collection makes for a powerful contrast between Kempinas’s and Tinguely’s differing approaches and ultimately demonstrates that less is more. Made of videotape and activated by natural elements like light and air, or in some cases artificial ones like fans and fluorescent tubes, the works are extraordinarily minimalist in both materiality and form, but they nonetheless have a powerful impact on our perception and spatial experience.

The first work that we encounter in the large open room on the ground floor is Light Pillars (2013), two 8-meter tall freestanding cylinders inside of which vertical videotape stripes are set in motion by fans. Light shines through the top. The humming of the fans, the flapping of the videotape against the sides of the cylinders, and the shining light creates a sensation of instability that moves from optical illusion to actual physical malaise.

This physical reaction is even more acute in Parallels (2007), where Kempinas plays with our perception of space. Hundreds of lines of (black) videotape are equidistantly hung horizontally across the width of the room at the height of approximately 6 feet, thereby cutting the 20 foot high space and creating an oppressive atmosphere of enclosement. Despite the fragility of the material and the knowledge of the illusion, one inevitably feels trapped. And while moving back and forth throughout the room, the flickering of the light on the shiny tape creates a sense of motion that in me at least elicited mild nausea. A completely different experience is made from the second floor of the museum, looking down above these tape lines. From here one judges their aesthetic. Due to their regularity and color contrast with the pristine white space, they look beautiful and elegant. They are static, calming and assuring rather than disturbing. Timeline (2013) and Slash (2013) are two other works that are similar in form while offering different spatial experiences as they are installed in different spaces or at different angles.

Kempinas’ ability to excite almost all the senses (he did ignore the olfactory) reaches its apex with Ballroom (2010) where fans, colorful light bulbs, videotapes and mirror foil are all utilized to create a funhouse full of motion and sound that lead us to get easily lost and disoriented.

But out of all these intriguing and stimulating works, the most fascinating were the two that combined art with science in the simplest of ways to create an overpowering impression. In these works – one occupies an entire room whereas the second is smaller and installed above a pedestal – a ring of videotape is activated by several fans blowing from above at different angles so as keep it floating in space and moving in a circular fashion. The result is dizzying and phenomenal. The humming of the fans, the breeze created, and the magical air dance of the tape to the rhythms of the moving blades is so engaging that it’s difficult to leave. There is something soothing yet exciting in these installations – the cycles are never the same and the tape moves and twists in constantly changing configurations, which always go around and around. There is repetition yet change, there are meditative components and there are nausea-inducing experiences, there is beauty and there is simplicity. I don’t know if there is a profound meaning in all of this, but all the works in the show offered me the chance to contemplate time and space, and reconsider my own relationship with art in a more direct way than I have in a long time.

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