Saturn Ascends

Courtesy of the Renaissance Society

An otherworldly drone wavers in and out of audible range, welcoming visitors to the show, “In a Saturnian World.” The exhibit’s walls set up a loosely circular trajectory, throwing visitors into orbit as they enter the University of Chicago’s Renaissance Society. Lacking placards, translations, and a definite order, the exhibit by Belgian artist Anne-Mie Van Kerckhoven aims to disorient all who enter.

The show’s title comes from the French Symbolist poet Paul Verlaine’s “Poèmes Saturniens,” a work which explores the spiritual and occult. Accordingly, walking into the exhibit feels like stepping onto another plane of experience. Colors and bodies are familiar but not quite right: the most representational series of collages shows mildly pornographic photos of women with planets for heads. Though Van Kerchkhoven uses many different media–pages ripped from sketchbooks, plexiglass, old advertisements from magazines, pastel, and markers–all of the pieces are similar in style, immediately recognizable as a unified work. As a whole, this collection may best be understood as a mythology of an unknown Saturnian race.

The gallery’s literature on  Van Kerckhoven’s exhibit alludes to an attempt at cultural critique, comparing the “kitsch” of the soft pornography that she uses to present-day American Apparel ads. She attempts to undermine the mission of the “hidden persuaders”–the marketing industry–by giving sexual advertisements a completely different ethos. Pages from fashion magazines are torn so that the women’s bodies, situated in pencil-lined rooms with neon-colored shapes, appear distorted and unreal. The show tries to alienate us from the media but goes too far–such earthly social commentary seems removed from the artwork, especially when the show holds such a tenuous connection to our world. Instead the exhibit seems to study imagination, narrative, perspective, and the appeal of irrationality.

Her artwork makes predictions and claims dealing with the existential concerns and mortality of the Saturnians. One piece reads: “Sometime between 2002 and 2008 earth-based gravitational wave detectors will watch blackholes collide and watch their collisions trigger wild vibrations of spacetime warpage.” The works are both futuristic and low-tech, using images from old advertisements and 2D rudimentary graphics. A video piece layers transparent colors and photographs on top of a seated woman’s figure so that she is slowly obscured. The artist’s interest in manipulating and iterating colors and text is also manifest on a wall nearby, where a series of fourteen drawings of twelve circles are alternatively flagged as studies in color, chemistry, and the occult, depending on the superimposed text.

The pinnacle of the exhibit is a 24-minute video that shows an audience watching a piece of performance art. We see an almost-nude man posing on a mat and interacting sexually with a few stone-faced audience members.  It almost seems like a documentary, or a memory: all aspects of the staging (the crew, the lighting, etc.) are visible, but the video is shot with alterations in the tones and white balance, making it dreamlike. At points the video is so grainy as to eliminate the details of the nude man’s face and body, leaving the viewers to reconstruct what the people in the room are seeing. In other moments, the performer’s body is so distorted and the camera angle so extreme that the human form becomes virtually unrecognizable.

Be warned–the “In a Saturnian World” experience is largely reflective of the visitors’ mood; the cynic enters the exhibit and is unimpressed by just another example of post-modern meaninglessness. The ardent viewer, however, will find pieces that challenge perspective and time in what seems like an eerie retrospective of the present akin to prehistoric man visiting the pyramids at the Field Museum. As an actual memory, the show seems like an after-image, fantastical moons and electric orange lips burned into the brain.

The Renaissance Society, Cobb Hall 418, 5811 S. Ellis Ave. Through December 18. Tuesday-Friday, 10am—5pm; Saturday-Sunday, noon—5pm. (773)702-8670.