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CEPA Features Works by Alexis Oltmer and William Bergmann

Retirement, an installation focused on the unknown and overused crushed blue stone.
Photograph by William Bergmann.

The current exhibit at the CEPA galleries is about spectacle, a critical theory word that seems to mean all the material stuff we’re all immersed in, the main purpose of which is to keep us immersed. Keep us numb.

The exhibit is by the artist team of Alexis Oltmer and William Bergmann. The works include photos and some tangible physical—that is, essentially sculptural as opposed to essentially representation—items, including a room full of coat hangers on hooks in rows and ranks on all four walls, another room entirely of photos of toilets. And plentiful prose, much of it from a volume by critical theorist Guy Debord entitled The Society of the Spectacle. The artworks can be hard to understand. The prose can be opaque.

The exhibit’s message is a radical one. The exhibit seems intended as a rallying cry against the spectacle. But in language unlikely to rally. Unlikely for that matter even to communicate the message.

Here’s the message: “Collectively as human beings, we inherently hold powers to manifest transformations of old ideals and decrees into new and unorthodox ways of being...Then why have we accepted a reality which is built upon complacency in mass produced images and objects as well as ossified through paths? Seemingly lacking the will to question, humankind has fallen into a desolate and materialistic time period, where manufactured products have become our masters, as they come to dominate our identities.’”

And here’s the rallying cry: “With this stated, nullify the realities of devout acceptance, and awaken a propulsion from within which puts in question the socially established normal.”

In terms of inspirational and motivational, it seems to lack a certain something. In comparison with, say, “Workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains.” Or, “Give me liberty or give me death.”

The images and materials—some of them—are interesting and powerful. It’s when a message gets attached to them that wheels begin to come off. Large-scale blow-up bust portraits of guys with shaved heads or at least serious buzz cuts—stripped to essentials, as it were—in a section called “Cogito.”

Among sculptural materials: in one gallery a shelf loaded with a type of crushed stone used for landscaping and the like, purchasable at Home Depot. Lovely stuff, when you consider. Wall informational copy explains that this material was deposited during the Devonian Period, a few hundred million years ago, and goes on to lament our “lack of general questioning of origins” of the stuff we buy and use, to the point that “the notion of ‘raw material’ has become strikingly removed from the ‘finished product.’”

It’s not clear just what we’re supposed to do with this information. Boycott Home Depot? Not use such materials? Study up on them?

In a small audio installation, you listen through headphones to a series of the kind of super-frustrational recorded phone messages you get when you try to call some commercial or administrative office, some utility, maybe, about some problem of whatever sort. Messages like “there is no one here right now to take your message,” or “all our operators are currently busy helping other customers.” Or please call such and such another number for assistance.

Nearby wall copy—from Debord—says that “to analyze the spectacle means talking its language to some degree—to the degree in fact that we are obliged to engage the methodology of the society to which the spectacle gives expression.”

Debord seems to have bureaucratic/academic doubletalk down to a fare-thee-well. He does seem to engage the methodology.

The Oltmer and Bergmann exhibit continues through June 7.

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