Stills of a performance by Thomas Kovachevich at Show Room, New York, March 22, 2012. Photos: 16 Miles [more]
There were faint gasps in the audience as Thomas Kovachevich began his performance on Thursday night at the Show Room gallery on the Lower East Side. How could one help it? It was an utterly beguiling sight. Kovachevich sat in front of a large, low metal table holding a shallow bed of warm water, onto which he had carefully floated a thin sheet, a film of some type. Then he had sprinkled a few small, thin slices of paper on top. And somehow, against any simple explanation, they were moving. They spun themselves into pipes and slowly slinked across the film. They crept forward and rolled like waves, paused momentarily, and leapt an inch or two.
Meanwhile, Keith Connolly, of the No-Neck Blues Band, played drones from an array of speakers, knobs, and a tape deck at the far end of the gallery. These sounded at first like long bowed chords on a cello. But then squeaks and clacks entered, and the drones grew deeper and became almost metallic. One moment it was soothing, the next sinister, as it had been when Connolly started the show, standing on top of a cymbal and working it across the floor with his feet, beating it up, falling silent only for the pouring of the warm water onto the table, and for Kovachevich to deposit those papers.
Video excerpt from later in the performance.
As the slices of paper that Kovachevich had set down worked their way to the edge of the mat, they slipped into the pool and went still, soaked with water, no longer picking up the minute evaporation that apparently animated them. Looking intently at the table, audience members could see the drama unfold in front of them, or they could look up to one of the gallery walls, where a video feed showed a gigantic close up of the table, turning each of the papers' tiniest gestures into brutal, vital movements. But Kovachevich's attention was squarely on the action taking place in front of him.
Speaking reductively, the performance was, in some sense, a hands-off, automatic version of the Circus or a free-floating, aleatoric take on The Way Things Go, those works' narratives substituted for open fields of possible events. Instead of acting as entertainer (Calder) or obsessive micromanager (Fischli/Weiss), Kovachevich served as a chemist—or, perhaps, a sorcerer—who starts the magic and then stands aside, almost becoming a voyeur like everyone else (he did very rarely adjust the lights from a tiny console at his side). He knew that those sheets of paper would pulse and roll, but everything else about their actions was up in the air—until, at least, they slipped one by one into the water and went cold. An assistant eventually brought the performance to a close, placing a large sheet over much of the pool, as if completing a burial.
Though the performance is long over, Kovachevich's work at Show Room is still literally moving right now. He has affixed long pieces of tape and grosgrain ribbon to three of the walls to make long sets of stripes that change shape based on the humidity in the room. As Roberta Smith explained in The New York Times on Friday:
"When the air is dry, the tape curls around the ribbons, fogging their colors of pink, orange, yellow or blue and suggesting delicate versions of Dan Flavin’s fluorescent tubes. When the humidity rises, the tape relaxes and flattens, revealing the ribbons’ hues at full cry."What the crowd witnessed on Thursday evening was a single accelerated manifestation—a dramatic précis—of the slow, humble processes that undergird Kovachevich's heartbreakingly nuanced art.