The early video works of Mounir Fatmi were the avant-garde ruminations of a lonely Moroccan living in Paris, letters from the cultural margins sent to an art-world center that consumed them with notable relish. No surprise, really: When it comes to art, the French have always liked their politics poetic-style, served with a little exotica for spice.
Aptly (if archly) described as autoethnographic, these 1990s-era videos led to the kind of sculptures now on view at Lombard-Freid, the artist’s first solo exhibition in New York. Fatmi’s sculptures are composed mostly of found objects—electrical wiring, VHS tapes, crutches, books, and horse-jump poles—and they continue his exploration of issues of power and identity, but on a more macro level. Taking on global systems of technology, science, history, and religion, they attempt to reveal the dubious social and economic forces—the so-called “architects” of the exhibition’s title—that currently shape our cultural evolution as human beings.
It’s a tall order, and Fatmi doesn’t always deliver. 500 Meters of Silence, for example, is a minimalist coil of antenna cable presented on a pedestal that only vaguely suggests our dependence on the unmitigated flow of images and words from TV and computers. In Sequence Sculpture, a giant waterfall of cable spilling from an aperture cut into the gallery’s office wall, this flow becomes a menacing, palpable presence; the invisible forces Fatmi wishes to manifest are appropriately given monstrous, animate form.
The specter of faith, and its various rhetorical impulses, is again conveyed both effectively, and not. The single-channel video loop of the text “God is dead by Nietzsche” fading into the text “Nietzsche is dead by God” is not only funny but poignant in the larger context of the show. The abstract jumble of wooden crutches in Keep the Faith, by comparison, comes off as dull and obvious.
Fatmi is at his best when he allows his materials—and ideas!—to escape their functional associations, engaging the viewer’s imagination as well as intellect. Had he edited this exhibition with such interests in mind, the result would have been a far more remarkable New York City debut.