The press release for this exhibition consists of an annotated excerpt from a text by 18th-century philosopher Immanuel Kant. Deliberately translated poorly by the artist, the text is almost nonsensical, recalling those literal Google translations. The real point seems to reside in the footnotes, which reveal the magnificently cerebral philosopher to be a troubled being, racked by constipation and sexual repression, requiring the assistance of a long-suffering servant.

Stephen Rhodes’s elaborate installation related to Kant as a historical figure in the same way the translation relates to the original text. Loosely strung together from isolated facts and inventions, the baggy whole, like the translation, descended into near gibberish. Unfortunately, the end product, for all its absurdity, was not nearly as amusing as one feels it was supposed to be.

The darkened gallery was transformed into a theatrical set. Grubby stage flats were splashed with paint and lined with dusty coffee cups and assorted digital and analog clocks. One had to pass through these to reach the main staging area, where four rotating videos were projected onto the wall from a stack of revolving projectors. On screen we saw a disjointed group of vignettes involving several figures in 18th-century dress wandering about in modern settings that are occasionally invaded by contemporary passersby.

The exterior scenes were dominated by people incessantly pacing, offering images of the central bewigged character, presumably Kant, walking along contemporary highways or parks. Periodically the camera homes in on his boots as he stomps on fallen coffee cups. From the footnotes we were aware that this referred to Kant’s constant coffee-drinking and his constipation-inspired walking bouts. The interior scenes take place in what appears to be a contemporary warehouse where Kant’s otherwise mundane activities—typing, sleeping, drinking coffee and nodding over his desk—are interrupted by outbursts of flames. The videos were accompanied by a ceaseless pounding, suggesting the rhythm of marching feet. Meanwhile, props from the videos, including a charred mattress, a blackened Selectric typewriter and innumerable whole and cracked coffee cups, were scattered throughout the installation.

One can read various philosophical references into the work—for instance, the flames may allude to the Enlightenment; a Fischli-and-Weiss-style string of successive events might imply the principle of cause and effect; and the many clocks, set to different times, may have something to do with Kant’s ideas about the subjective nature of time. Or not. It is something of a relief to escape from the installation with the clomping feet ringing in one’s ears. In the end, the point is as unclear as the text translation. Is this a spoof on the certainties of the Age of Reason? Or is Rhodes simply suggesting that all history, in the immortal words of Henry Ford, is more or less bunk?


Photo: Stephen G. Rhodes: Grundlegung Zur Krankisch Grundrisse Kopf bis Magen Innere Wirkung
Natur Kapputt Aus Gemacht, 2011, 4-channel film installation; at Metro Pictures.