Whether layering references to different eras within a single work or organizing pseudo-retrospective exhibitions, Ken Okiishi often folds the past into the present. His second show at Reena Spaulings, “Being and/or Time,” combined some of his earliest output with more recent videos and paintings. The exhibition emphasized a fundamental unsteadiness in the images the artist has produced and gathered over the past two decades. New York, where Okiishi has lived and worked for much of that time, emerged as a city that invites shifting modes of viewership.
A sequence of four videos from the late 1990s and early 2000s was projected on a wall near the gallery entrance. Among these works was David Wojnarowicz in New York, 1999 (1999–2000), which begins with a young man walking along the West Side Highway carrying a copy of the catalogue for Wojnarowicz’s 1999 retrospective at the New Museum in New York. Dressed in 1970s period garb and channeling a young Wojnarowicz, the man strolls through the Chelsea Piers sports complex—a pre–High Line symbol of the neighborhood’s revitalization that opened in 1995. The high-end fitness center offers a comic contrast to his somber performance, which is more in tune with the dilapidated West Side piers that Wojnarowicz frequented decades prior. Scenes of the man walking around or reading poems by Wojnarowicz are intercut with sequences shot outside the Cock, an East Village gay bar. There, artist and writer Travis Jeppesen delivers a monologue about recent sexual encounters, frequently interrupting himself to address the camera directly to remind viewers that he is a Lacanian. Over his shoulder, NYC 2000 appears spray-painted on the wall like a time stamp.
Playing on a screen nearby was Being and/or Time (2016), a slideshow of all 25,000 images Okiishi took on his phone between 2013 and 2016. Cycling through twenty-four images a second (the standard frame rate for films), the work makes it all but impossible to grasp more than flashes of distinguishable content. Occasionally, a few images of the same subject appear in succession, seeming to slow the rapid flow of imagery. The work may be diaristic, but it comes across mostly as a series of textures and colors. Flickering behind viewers as they watched Okiishi’s more slowly paced early videos, the slideshow also felt like a taunting presence in the gallery, challenging those attempting to devote attention to the nuances of other works.
The tension between absorption and distraction established by the videos carried over to a large humorous painting, 1 RPM (2017), which both commands and deflects attention. Mounted on a motorized spindle that rotates clockwise, the grungy, enigmatic work features two speech bubbles over a streaky white background. The words PEOPLE and BUT are written in the bubbles but crossed out. Editorial corrections are offered: I appears adjacent to PEOPLE, while AND borders BUT. A rectangular flap cut from the canvas flops around as the painting spins. While most of the exhibition dealt with social spaces beyond the gallery, this winking, opaque canvas seemed like a parody of the insular art that’s been a staple in New York galleries for the past decade.
In the back of the exhibition space, Okiishi screened a recent video that gives a dashboard-eye view of a GPS-guided drive through Manhattan and Queens. With a classical music soundtrack and a navigation app’s verbal instructions, this matter-of-fact tour felt considerably more sober than the affected, performative stroll we see in David Wojnarowicz in New York, 1999. The lurching movement of the vehicle in heavy traffic strips the landscape of the personal, the queer, and the historical. Here is New York seemingly unburdened by cultural memory. Still, like the other works on view, this casual, technologically inflected piece feels both of-the-moment and temporally volatile.