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Zen and Now

An artist whose witty Conceptual gems from the Vietnam era to the present transcend the merely absurd to reveal deeper truths.

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The poetry of materials: Kos's Sound of Ice Melting  

In 1970, a young San Francisco artist named Paul Kos placed about a dozen standing microphones around two blocks of ice. He called the work The Sound of Ice Melting. I don’t know how the original audience reacted (an appropriate response would have been the sound of one hand clapping), but the photograph documenting the event is a fine absurdist image. It calls to mind the old photographs of politicos speaking into a bristling array of microphones, only here the microphones resemble birdlike creatures craning to hear what the blockhead will say. The absurdity is not, however, just comic or satiric. It has about it a genuine touch of Zen, which values absurdity as something that can help the mind transcend the limitations of ordinary discourse and rational thought. The sound of ice melting—and the mystery it evokes—is certainly more interesting than what’s usually spewed into microphones.

Everything Matters: Paul Kos, A Retrospective—which was organized by Constance Lewallen for the Berkeley Art Museum and opened last week at New York University’s Grey Art Gallery—includes a representative sampling of Kos’s art, ranging from The Sound of Ice Melting to pieces made recently. Calling himself a “materials-based Conceptual artist,” Kos came of age during the Vietnam era, when many young artists became interested in performance and installation art. They often made politically engaged work; they explored the properties of various materials not traditionally associated with art. “I have always been intrigued by materials and the way their indigenous characteristics have a certain poetry,” Kos says. “I like the poetry of materials—the way ice behaves or the way cheese behaves or the way a chair behaves.” A politically engaged artist interested in the way cheese behaves? Obviously, Kos’s art has neither the dreary academic character suggested by the phrase “materials-based Conceptual artist” nor the painfully obvious, tendentious tone that diminishes most political art.

Kos has a gift for crystallizing his absurdist perspective into memorable images. The show begins with a piece called Just a Matter of Time, a horizontal series of fifteen cuckoo clocks. For each clock, a hammer and a sickle serve as the hanging, paired weights. Although the clocks work mechanically, their hands have been removed, so the time cannot be told. The cuckoos still pop out unexpectedly, however, to proclaim cuckoo, cuckoo. A witty lampoon of the confidence communism once maintained in the future—the hand of time can no longer raise the hammer and sickle—the piece also calls into question the pride placed in any ideology: Only the cuckoo knows the time, and he doesn’t even agree with the other cuckoos. In another political piece, Kos mocks militant nationalism by presenting on a video screen a typewriter that repeatedly taps out mar-mar-march in a military rat-a-tat-tat cadence. To see the piece, visitors must walk across wooden planks that compel them to adopt a high step—a kind of forced march to art.

Many of Kos’s works have a religious dimension. He often makes use of Catholicism in addition to Zen. Guadalupe Bell is a Wizard of Oz contraption, at once poignant and funny. When viewers pull a cord to ring a bell, lightning flashes every time, and an image of the Virgin appears on the wall—every time. It will raise a sad smile on the faces of those who would rather believe in miracles. In Silenced Tongues, viewers swing a large clapper-tongue with a light on the bottom, creating shadows on the wall that look like a bell tolling soundlessly—an offering of light to those unjustly silenced. The title of the exhibition comes from an observation by Vaclav Havel, who once said that in the West, everything works and nothing matters, whereas in the East, nothing works and everything matters. To Kos, the world works well only when everything matters, if only for a moment.


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