Chant (Song), by Rene Leveque is a dominating presence at the Dallas Contemporary. Composed of hundreds of black umbrellas hanging upside-down from the ceiling, the installation is a little larger than a tennis court. The generic black umbrellas were bought in bulk (perhaps that explains the acrid, oily smell of the installation). The umbrella’s canopies were slashed according to the artist’s instructions. The overlapping fabric creates a low black ceiling disrupted by powerful oscillating fans angled up at the umbrellas. The fans, together with a soundtrack, create a tromp d’oreille illusion to emphasize the auditory nature of the trick). It seems that this gentle push of air is responsible for the dramatic, metallic screeching that can reach up to 95 decibels.
While the soundtrack is reminiscent of a turning subway amplified by the acoustics of a tunnel, the black umbrellas are the personification of generic. These two ingredients are combined to evoke a crowded, cosmopolitan environment. What remains hidden are the people implied by a subway, and the crowd that should be holding the umbrellas. The absence of this implied crowd makes the other visitors fill the gap, like they are meant to be a part of the exhibit. In fact, Chant creates an unusual stage of museum-goers walking with their heads tilted up, or a crowd of people talking seemingly oblivious to the mob of umbrellas above.
As the canopy of umbrellas ends, there is a drywall fence with holes; it is the next piece by Leveque, La mort du cygnet (The Dying Swan). Behind the fence is a shed made out of plywood painted black. A light bulb hangs down from the ceiling, and a black wedding dress rests on the floor below. The missing masses of Chant are overshadowed by something more disturbing: the absence of an individual connected to the abandoned dress. With the black dress, there is the hint of a narrative. Once again the crowd becomes a part of the installation. Limited by the size of the shed, we all stand in close proximity to the dress and look down as if we were attending a funeral.
Often in a museum our response to art is individual — personal. Viewing Leveque’s works, like attending a sports event, is infinitely more powerful if you go when it is busy. There is an unusually shared response to Chant.
There is an interesting corollary installation at the Grand Palais in Paris that applies what sounds like a more colorful, whimsical approach to similar themes. (Note to editor: see links below) While Daniel Buren’s installation of low, overlapping, colored glass with a soundtrack sounds cute and all, I personally am glad to have Leveque’s very effective, very memorable works here in Dallas. Whether it says something to you about art, or it just inspires you to buy an umbrella with a little more personality, Leveque’s work stays with you.
The very best time to visit Leveque’s installations before they close on August 8th, is this Saturday when the Design District hosts Gallery Night from 6-9. Having been to the Contemporary during its regular hours, I know first-hand that these installations are best appreciated with a crowd. In case food trucks, a DJ, a dozen galleries open late and the ever eclectically dressed Dallas gallery crowd weren’t enough incentive to attend. Put it on your calendar now, and get there before your friends so you can appreciate the absence of the implied masses and the anonymity of the other viewers.