As subject matter, the debased utopia is low-hanging fruit. Every continent has a few, and they emanate intoxicating aromas of corrupted idealism. In making Projects 102 (2016) French-Algerian artist Neil Beloufa has turned his attention to an anonymous and pale string of waterfront condominium complexes, which manage to twinkle in the sun while also exhibiting the sickly pallor endemic to sanctuaries for the rich. Central to the show is a video titled People’s passion, lifestyle, beautiful wine, gigantic glass towers, all surrounded by water (2011) in which Vancouver’s sterile villages play the ubiquitous urban paradise. Combining this video with metal and MDF sculptures that jostle between slipshod institutional architecture and dystopian movie set, Beloufa works in the spatial equivalent of what Godard called auto-critique, a style of film that relentlessly transgresses the boundaries which conservatively define media and narrative structure. Moving from sculptures to the video, you can feel his jittery enthusiasm flatten into base pretentiousness. It’s the fictional condo-dwellers featured on film who take the brunt of his ire; they’ve been given all the psychological complexity of drywall. Somewhere in a more perfect future, Beloufa may lend these subjects the same scrutiny he gives to sculpture, architecture, and urbane ideology: an extravagant inquisitiveness, simmering with conflict.
With crackerjack verve, Beloufa has welded, carved, bolted, and casted his quasi-sculptural pieces into existence. Garnished with smatterings of trash and indiscreetly displaying wires and hardware, they mimic urbanity’s lurching subconscious. Appropriately, Beloufa’s style itself calls up an artistic consciousness overstuffed with historical methods and materials – the steel frameworks are connected to MDF benches carved to recall rock slabs and ancient tablets. Sometimes these form the negative space of crushed beer cans – recalling the hollows left by fossils – with the actual aluminum vessels dispersed like lily pads. Through a finely-tuned irreverence, this environment becomes an absurdist caricature of the urban ascetic’s perceived synchronicity with virgin nature. In contrast, Beloufa’s human subjects are just hack impressions. In the video, when they’re not busy swimming or skiing, they testify to the transcendent virtue of locally-sourced wine, which seems to flow from a bottomless cellar. Along the way, Beloufa caricatures himself: observe the smug young artist, dismissing the rich as vapid automatons. Gentrification is despicable. But this flat-footed piss-taking leads straight into an echo chamber of self-satisfaction; I’d be tempted to opt for the air-conditioned condo, myself.
Disappointing in itself, the video performs dutifully in the exhibition’s larger structure. Its images become melting shards when projected through an imposing kinetic contraption. This machine slowly expands and contracts, like a Japanese screen interpreted by Jean Tinguely. Its metal frame is laced with a circulatory system of black cables and Perspex panels that, here and there smeared with swaths of color, alternately catch and slip the projections of vaguely modernist buildings, and endless blue skies. The experience is both alienating and transfixing in its slugging movement and resistance to coherence. The testimonies of Beloufa’s derided utopians can still be heard, but now participate in a weird percolation between waking life and its tenebrous depths.
This mise-en-scène approximates the collective psychological complex that grips a city like Vancouver, a place at once uniquely beautiful and irredeemably corrupt. In her 2003 collection Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture, poet Lisa Robertson remembered watching “the city of Vancouver dissolve in a fluid called money.” Extreme financial pressures by a real-estate market run amok paralyze resistance to such floods. And so we wait and stew. In so doing we resemble the viewers who sit on the padded benches in Beloufa’s installation, observing mayhem unfold at a magma pace.
This style of immersive Orwellian theater has been done before, with more curdled vitriol, in Jon Kessler’s Circus (2009), and with a more rigorous search for subject matter and political intensity, in Judy Radul’s World Rehearsal Court of the same year. But Beloufa’s way of forming resonances between the human body and institutional architecture gives his installation a crackling cyborgian dimension. As viewers’ arms outstretch to suspend smartphones, their bones rhyme with the steel armatures that suspend domed surveillance cameras. These in turn fold back into an archaic collapsing of human spirit and technology, as in Cubist painting and the bizarro curves of German Expressionist architecture. We are reminded that translucent surfaces have long been deployed by corrupted institutions as public emblems of piety, as Beloufa uses tinted foam panelling in the way of medieval stained glass. The timeless nature of our self-obsession is mirrored, as pools of black resin embedded in the MDF sometimes have the rectangular aspect of phone screens, and sometimes the amoebic shape of oil patches, or Narcissus’s pond. Each time a reference to the internet crossed through this installation, I thought of Janice Kerbel’s Bird Island (1999), a decidedly amateurish website advertising a fictional Bahamanian time share, both bland and dreamy. Like Beloufa, Kerbel has a penchant for the artwork as quasi-fiction. But where her projects always couple ranging imagination with impeccable restraint, Beloufa’s fabulations proceed in clunky jump cuts. He seems to want to try everything at once, demonstrating a charming anxiousness.
Cheap Perspex domes laced with a fabricator’s Sharpie markings shrewdly recall the labor that undergirds the dream of art. Inside these paranoid cupolas, Beloufa has installed twitching, red-eyed cameras. These reduce us to subject matter alongside his production assistants and the nearby museum guards rocking back and forth on sore feet. They remind us that we are also laboring bodies as we go to work on our mobile devices, doing the museum’s social media advertising like unpaid PR interns. Magazine clippings, booze bottles, and B-grade DVDs block these camera lenses, and viewers are fed back to themselves as constituents of a cultural mulch. Catching us in the cheap thrill of self-confirmation, Beloufa produces an anxious frisson between perceptual and symbolic planes of art experience, and the physical and material process that support it.
Beloufa’s antipathy extends towards his audience’s conditioned minds. After all, we’ve all agreed to partake in the Elysian promise peddled by MoMA. On its surface, the place promises to be a heterotopia of cultural experience. But despite the best curatorial direction, it necessarily reduces diversity to a smooth flow of air-conditioned, white-walled experience, while ceaselessly reminding of the disparities in power concomitant to institutionalized experiences of art.
Beloufa is a smartass – a very interesting one, when he allows himself to be adventurous rather than pat. Should you find your narcissist’s daydream interrupted by a dead iPhone battery, power outlets have been embedded in the sculptures. No simple pessimist, you can feel Beloufa thinking through the ideology of status-seeking culture. He wants the energy in his work to run through fissures in upwardly-mobile belief systems, fissures formed by pulling us in two directions at once: into a biting criticality of others, and into our own socialized self-obsession.
The life-force of his installation really forms in the overlapping of this critical project with sculptural stylings twitching with curiosity and humor. Towering screens are paneled with tie-dye foam cast to recall a brick wall, and are set aglow by the museum’s vast windows. A fern leaf pokes out here, some silhouetted human hands there. Nearby, a comically huge USB cable hangs over one of the benches. Always, Beloufa’s execution criss-crosses between the anarchic and the vocational. A captivating voice is produced in his ambivalent usage of as many threads of artistic tradition as there are braided wires in the cables that power the show.
With this scene unfolding in the vaunted space of MoMA, the effect is of a Russian nesting doll – a lively mocking of utopianism unfolding inside a functioning utopian palace. When I asked a friend if she’d enjoyed the show, she in turn asked if I meant the stuff that surrounded her as she was looking out a window into the sculpture garden. Oddly, this isn’t the worst reaction. It’s the logical conclusion of the way Beloufa mimics the phenomenology of idealistic spaces in order to exhume their absurdity. Towards this goal, he has given us a fabricated documentary that apes the faux reality of real-estate porn, as well as comfy seats on which to watch it fragment into chaos. For their part, the metal and MDF constructions cloy stubbornly to peripheral roles, alternately reminding us of airport seating and kinetic science center displays. The installation has the demeanor of a too-smart-for-his-own-good adolescent, affecting aloofness while surreptitiously cultivating wry charm.
Given time, it comes into focus as a lavish inquisition into sculpture, politics, and social space. Had Beloufa shown the same probing curiosity for human subjects, he could have incanted his ivory ghost town without also channelling bitter condescension. On the other hand, it seems perfectly comical for an artist admirably bent on rebuking aspirationalist ideology to accidentally undercut his own authority in the process.