The New York Times

March 27, 2014
Social Analysis From the Edge

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The Undercover Man Photos that are part of Rossella Biscotti’s installation, one of four exhibitions at the Sculpture Center.



A species of contemporary art embraced particularly by the young and intellectually ambitious combines avant-garde style and social science. Those who do this sort of thing operate like sociologists or anthropologists, investigating and documenting certain real-world human situations. But rather than present their discoveries in clear, straightforward terms, they’ll typically interpret their findings obliquely, often by means of multiple mediums including video, sculptural assemblage and architectural construction.

Two of four projects by an international quartet of artists on view at the Sculpture Center offer a good opportunity to ponder this genre.

Rossella Biscotti’s “The Undercover Man” (2008) is a disjunctive black-and-white 30-minute film about Joseph D. Pistone, the F.B.I. agent portrayed by Johnny Depp in “Donnie Brasco.” In the late 1970s and early ’80s, Mr. Pistone infiltrated organized crime circles in New York, and his efforts resulted in the conviction of more than 100 mobsters. He now lives under an assumed name in an undisclosed location. Ms. Biscotti, who lives and works in Brussels, somehow persuaded Mr. Pistone to appear in her film. In brief interview scenes set in shadowy rooms Mr. Pistone responds to questions Ms. Biscotti puts to him with clipped answers. These passages seem meant to parody interrogation scenes from noir movies. They are intercut with long, static shots of an overhead light bulb, recording machines, a running digital clock and apparently original surveillance films made by the F.B.I. Time code numbers for editing and other technical signs appear off and on.

All of this is oddly riveting to watch and yet frustratingly uninformative. It doesn’t add up to the kind of satisfying narrative you’d get in, for example, an Errol Morris documentary. It’s particularly perplexing, because, outside the projection room, stacks of photocopied documents about Mr. Pistone’s activities obtained by Ms. Biscotti under the Freedom of Information Act are displayed. Here also are framed copies of actual surveillance photographs of Mr. Pistone in the company of various gangsters. And there’s a small color snapshot of Mr. Pistone and Mr. Depp posing together.


Work by David Douard at the Sculpture Center.

It seems perverse that Ms. Biscotti would put so much effort into researching Mr. Pistone’s adventures and then produce a film that is more about the apparatus of documentary filmmaking than it is about its ostensible subject. In her catalog essay, Mary Ceruti, director and chief curator of the Sculpture Center, observes that Ms. Biscotti’s approach “destabilizes any notion of a singular and embodied objective truth” and “reminds us that the film — like the whole operation — is a constructed narrative.” It’s something of a bait and switch: Promised a ripping yarn, you’re given an academic lesson about the deceptiveness of documentary movies in general. Herein lies the too-frequent problem with cerebral art that investigates the real world: The artist and her professorial pretensions get in the way of a potentially great story.

Jumana Manna’s work is similarly vexing. For her 23-minute video “Blessed Blessed Oblivion,” Ms. Manna explored the so-called thug culture of Silwan, a predominantly Arab neighborhood in East Jerusalem. She recorded young Arab men in a barbershop, an auto-body shop and a weightlifting gym, capturing in shifting perspectives their exaggeratedly masculine, occasionally tenderly feminine, ways. Ms. Manna, who was raised in Jerusalem and now lives in Berlin, drew inspiration from Kenneth Anger’s 1963 underground classic, “Scorpio Rising,” but her work is not nearly so over the top, and her political purposes are distinctly different. In her catalog essay, Ruba Katrib, a Sculpture Center curator, notes that the “flamboyant performances of masculinity” in “Blessed Blessed Oblivion” are to be understood as reactions to the political disenfranchisement of Ms. Manna’s Palestinian subjects.

But almost nothing of that sociopolitical background is made explicit in Ms. Manna’s impressionistic video. Nor do sculptural works accompanying it help much. These include eccentrically shaped plastic boxes containing seatbelts and fancy wristwatches and blocks of limestone and concrete meant to refer to the destruction of ancient Islamic remains by Israeli developers. If Ms. Manna’s video and sculpture were more imaginatively or aesthetically arresting, it might not matter. But as it is, her overly self-conscious artistry does as much to obscure as to illuminate a human circumstance of vast complexity.

The other two artists, Radamés Figueroa of Puerto Rico and David Douard of Paris, also take on sociologically fraught topics, though not so much as researchers. Mr. Figueroa has created a tepid, inert installation resembling a tropical picnic area with white plastic furniture, an elevated plywood structure like a kids’ treehouse and live plants in planters made from soccer balls, tennis balls and coconuts. It refers to works he’s created in the Puerto Rican rain forest intended to break down distinctions between high art and vernacular culture and to promote congenial participatory experiences. Translated to the center’s brick-and-concrete interior, so much is lost that it would be unfair to base any judgment about Mr. Figueroa’s enterprise on what’s here.

Without guidance from Ms. Katrib’s catalog essay, it would be hard to say what Mr. Douard’s confusing, cliché-ridden installation is about. It includes animated videos, surrealistic figurative sculptures, two-by-four construction draped by plastic sheeting, rap-style wall texts and a running fountain cobbled from industrial steel and transparent plastic. According to Ms. Katrib, all this is supposed to be about the circulation of effluvia and systems of waste management — real, virtual and metaphysical. That’s certainly a worthy topic. If only he had fresher metaphors to bring to the task.

The exhibitions by Rossella Biscotti, Jumana Manna, Radamés Figueroa and David Douard run through May 12 at the Sculpture Center, 44-19 Purves Street, Long Island City, Queens; 718-361-1750,