There is a certain irony in the fact that when I saw “The Future Past” much of the show, which was performance-based and happened at the opening, had passed. I saw what was left—visual works and the remains of the performances. Staged in a one-time cafeteria and another-time carpentry shop on the historic campus of the Central State Hospital, a former mental health facility, “The Future Past” engages what remains of the history of the building. Perhaps it is because of this context that the remains were all the more poignant, and the visual works spoke even more quietly about the place that surrounds them and what happened there.
I’ll pause on this phrase—“what happened there”—and consider it in light of brief speech by Harry in T. S. Eliot’s The Family Reunion:
All that I could hope to make you understand / Is only events: not what has happened. / And people to whom nothing has ever happened / Cannot understand the unimportance of events.
The remarkable thing about “The Future Past” is that the work that remained created a palpable sense that something had happened, both in the history of the building and at the opening itself. The difference between this and the week’s event—the hundredth running of the Indianapolis 500—couldn’t be more striking. It is surely foolish to try to make a case for the unimportance of the event in light of what happened: but this is the proper job of the critic (a job which Harry, quite sensibly, refused to attempt).
I don’t want to discount the performances or the larger program of the show: it’s an impressive exhibition that includes many of Indianapolis’ most serious artists. But for the purposes of this review I want to focus on the specifically un-eventful character of a number of the works with an eye toward distinguishing a sense of something that happens from the news-feed of events that usually populates our days.
Michael Milano’s Central State Awning is something of a readymade. A found awning armature that was cleaned up and powder-coated is set on the ground at a slight angle to a bank of windows through which flooded a cool, diffuse light (as I saw the work—the light changes throughout the day to include direct sunset-light, as shown in the image). While I am in general ill-disposed to readymades, this one was something special: the angular bars that would support the awning fabric and the utilitarian supports and braces reinforcing its wedge shape create an impressively dynamic formal array, which, when placed in proximity to the windows, is utterly transformed.
By some alchemy that I don’t fully understand, that sculpture became the light coming through the windows for me. The light, though diffuse, seemed solid that day—and if I were to reach for a simile I would say that the light was like white stone. And the strange thing about Milano’s sculpture is that it captured and held that stone light—catching it at just the right angle as it floated through the windows and supporting it with just the right number of braces necessary for such heavy light. Central State Awning, as I saw it in that room, at that time, had nothing to do with an awning, but everything to do with light, space, time and the feeling of standing in that room. I say this is un-eventful because light is so rarely an event: but it is something that happens. And anyone who has stood in an empty room with light flooding through the windows, and has seen the light for what it is—light—has let it be in the difficulty of what it is to be—will know exactly what I am talking about.
Colin Tuis Nesbit’s Melancholy Hates Haste was a performance involving resident ghosts, reading from Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, a chair, a table, and an inch-wide outline of a room drawn in salt. While I was not there for the performance, it was almost uncanny the way that the salt room, chair and book implied a presence not wholly identifiable: again, it gave the sense that something had happened there—and not just a particular performance. In this case I think that the arrangement of the chair and table, the provocative selection of the book, and the salt drawing (which is a physical record of the act of outlining a space) all reflect the attentive use of the space, marking it off with human action and attention (ghosts or no ghosts). The air was thick around this work—thick like I heard a painting professor describe the space in Byzantine paintings. I attribute the thickness I am talking about to the salt drawing: we imagine borders rising vertically from the salt line, filling up the air with implied but visually real objects. Again (and especially without the performance), there is no event here, but the presence that the setup conjures implies that something has happened, even if the particulars are obscured from view.
These weren’t the only works that opened up this territory: Megumi Shauna Arai’s performance left behind two piles and a meticulously constructed square of dirt that filled the space with the fragrance of earth; Carissa Carman’s installation and performance included a square of sod, meticulously trimmed with a comb and scissors neatly laid next to the grass; No Exit Performance left a row of tulle screens used for projections that also created a kind of hanging haze in the space. There is more that I could talk about, of course, but these works managed to activate the space with slight remnants of human activity that tenderly acknowledged the history of the place and testify in a quiet, unmoving way about something that has happened. The record here is in the physical objects: traces of directed activity that is all the more realized because it is no longer happening.
The site-specific pop-up show is well-worn territory by now, and by comparison to a work like Kara Walker’s 35-foot tall sugar-encrusted A Subtlety, or The Marvelous Sugar Baby, Nesbit’s inch-wide salt line, for instance, hardly registers a vibration in either conceptual punch or material execution. But A Subtlety was the art event of the summer—130,000 visitors—and if there is something to be said for “The Future Past,” it is that something happened here, no matter how many people were there to see it.