Humor in Speed Art Museum Exhibit Provokes Viewers

by ekramer on April 25, 2008

The Speed Art Museum opened an exhibit this week with work by an Austrian artist who wants to provoke people. WFPL’s Elizabeth Kramer reports.

On Main and Seventh streets in downtown Louisville is a peculiar artwork — a flamboyant chandelier suspended from a pole resembling the kind that holds a hangman’s noose.

When an unsuspecting pedestrian passes underneath, it comes to life as the sound of breathing is accompanied by flashing lights. This afternoon, that pedestrian is Sean Renilow of New York.

“My first thought initially is someone was trying to play some kind of an elaborate prank on the city,” he says.

The prankster, in this case, is Austrian artist Werner Reiterer, who created and installed this massive work here two years ago. Reiterer says making public art gives him a thrill.

“In the public space, you can irritate lots of people,” he says.

This week Reiterer was back in Louisville for an exhibit of his work at the Speed Art Museum and ready to irritate and amuse with sculptures and drawings. All portray absurdity in the vein of Gary Larson’s “Far Side” comics.

There’s a drum peddle attached to a large white box. Press the peddle and instead of a drumbeat, you hear a gong. Next to a nearby wall sits a slouching, life-size figure of a man. Reiterer walks by, triggering a motion detector. The man seems to breathe as a bag over his head fills with air.

“It’s called Raw Loop because it also it’s focusing on those basics of or life and that’s breathing,” he says. “You do it in a loop your whole life. I mean, you never stop breathing.”

Reiterer says one museum worker suggested it was about Guantanamo Bay prison. Another linked the piece to unrest in Tibet. The artist says he wants to provoke people into thinking in new ways.

“You can irritate people and than also project a process of, I would say, education and learning about the world,” he says.

Having an exhibit of Reiterer’s work was the idea of curator Julian Robson. He likens the artist’s approach to that of Marcel Duchamp, who in 1917 turned a urinal on its side in Paris and dubbed the artwork “Fountain.” Robson says Reiterer’s work often uses modern technology to give objects new meanings. The art’s interactive nature fits into Robson’s efforts to present exhibits that are far from solemn affairs.

“I’ve been really interested in how do we go around changing the way that an exhibition is created and presented,” Robson says.

The crowd is far from somber at this week’s opening and the scene has Robson and Reiterer smiling. In a piece called “Come Closer to Leave,” a voice from a wall of speakers beckons visitors to approach before berating them.

“Are you silly? Go away, you BLEEP. Leave me alone,” the voice booms.

Local sculptor Brad Meredith endured a round of insults.

“The speaker wall over here, when you walk in front of, has some profane comments, and that really startled me,” he says. “But there seems to be a tie of humor involved in all of his work.”

The humor is what people notice first. But the work also has an underlying tone of angst and aggression.

The exhibit, called Raw Loop, is at the Speed Art Museum through June 29.

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