Ship Shape

Spelunking Into History

The structure may have been a lot more labyrinthine at the 2002 Liverpool Biennial, where some visitors panicked, pounded on the walls, and never made it to the inner sanctum. But even in the compact version here, Below (United Radiance), a video and audio installation, is pretty disorienting. Follow the metal corridor past its U-turns into a dim, steel-lined space where a DVD projection, shot in the bowels of a big old modern ocean liner, ricochets off the reflective ceiling and walls. At least we can make out the contours of the endless ladders, dials, shafts, walkways, and machinery packed below deck. Making his way through the ship's dark innards with an infrared videocam affixed to his head, the artist—who was once Matthew Barney's assistant—couldn't. That's why the cadence changes, and the head-held camerawork gets faster and more frantic during the 55-minute piece, as do the sounds of his footsteps and breath, and the pings and clanks as he bumps into things. "By the end," he says, "it was, like, let me out."

The ship in which Wogan did his spelunking is the ultimate mid-20th-century luxury liner, the SS United States, which now sits moldering in a Philadelphia wet dock. Stretching as long as the Empire State Building is high, it was built in 1952 and was obsolete in 17 years. Sold as scrap metal, it was saved by its buyer. Wogan's shaky revelation of the infernal machinery within this decaying behemoth isn't as smooth as Jane and Louise Wilson's twinned projections of an abandoned Soviet rocket base, nor as pompous as many works lately that address the failure of modernism. It's more like a modest coda, from the far side of the Cold War, to Metropolis. "I like the nostalgia of the forms better than the claustrophobia of the image," commented one viewer on the way out. As for the inescapable metaphor, spin it however you wish.

 
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