Fear, Honor, Obey

A new show at the MIA makes art feel like torture

It takes only about 30 minutes of interview time for Minneapolis artist Richard Shelton to evoke the specter of psychologist Stanley Milgram. This is to explain the chaos of his and Piotr Szyhalski's show "P.R.S.S." at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Milgram is best known for his series of 1962 experiments wherein 65 percent of test subjects agreed to administer electric shocks to protesting victims simply because he commanded it. (The shocks, it turns out, were faked, as were the screams of the "victims.") Such experiments were relevant to a culture still processing the brutality of the concentration camp and the Siberian gulag. For Shelton and Szyhalski, Milgram is something of the patron saint to their collaboration.

"P.R.S.S." is set up as a series of four experimental spaces hidden behind the doors of an imposing, flat-black room built in the center of gallery. The portals through this black barrier lead to chambers that emit a series of eerie squeals, squawks, screams, and electrical jolts.

"It's a bunker and it's totally locked," Piotr Szyhalski explains a few days before the show as he surveys the state of construction. He is dressed in a bright orange jumpsuit and vaguely resembles the Cold-War cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. Szyhalski, who came from Poland to Minneapolis to teach more than 10 years ago, is known for his interactive web-based projects, many of which are collected under the name "the Spleen" (www.mcad.edu/home/faculty/szyhalski/Piotr).

Dough, a deer (a male deer): "P.R.S.S." at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Courtesy of Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Dough, a deer (a male deer): "P.R.S.S." at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts

By the time of the gallery opening, the doors will be labeled with neat orange placards, and a melodic, Orwellian female voice will lead visitors through the steps necessary to enter the bunker. These include using a brand-new change machine--of the sort found at any car wash or video arcade--to get the quarters for the vending machine that holds the key cards to enter the rooms. Visitors have to decide just how motivated we are to enter these spaces, all under the gaze of a black and orange mural of a giant stag with a large dollar sign between his horns.

If the outside of this bunker is imposing, the art to be found inside the four rooms truly makes the skin crawl. Two rooms in particular are filled with daunting imagery of the sort that forces you to avert your eyes (watch for warning labels if you're sensitive to such things). I don't want to give the game away, but one room, labeled with "P...," is dominated on one wall by an obscenely giant, projected close-up of a Big-Brother-like head. The head tells god-awful Polish jokes and periodically tells us to "Shock him, he's Polish!" (A red button that sits on a clear Plexiglas stand in the center of the room allows us to do just that.)

"I'm interested in morality and authority," Richard Shelton says of the "P..." room. "How people can do things they know are morally wrong. Milgram perceived that you learn authoritative commands from parents before you learn to perceive morality. That's the area where people can then be exploited--through the application of authority."

Starting with that theory, the artists themselves act as Milgram-like authority figures in this show, winking as they do so. After all, besides the conditions set up for viewers to see the work ($1 per card to enter the torture scenes), the artists have also set up an eBay station to sell portions of the show--even though this means the items will be removed from display during the exhibit's run. While many elements of the show are priced beyond the resources of most gallery-goers (the change machine, for instance, is $2,500), opening up the exhibition to the possibility of destruction is something one rarely sees. This barely controlled chaos also surfaced on opening night when the projection devices and various computer components started malfunctioning due to the constant slamming of the heavy doors.

Despite all the heavy imagery, or perhaps because of it, the audience at the opening was strangely blasé. Most of the crowd seemed content to gather in smallish chat groups, studiously avoiding the sounds of shocks and screams that provided a constant backdrop to all the chitchat. Which is likely just what the artists planned.

 
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