Remote control: Alexander Hahn's 'Luminous Point' (2006-7, represented here by a still) at SFMOMA is initially reminiscent of treasure-hunt video games. (Photo courtesy the artist)

Room for Thought at SFMOMA

Michael Fox September 4, 2008

A film in a darkened theater commands our undivided attention, but a video installation in a museum doesn’t have the same effect. Living so long with the insidious remote control, plus the steady erosion of attention spans, has made us impatient and intolerant of any program that isn’t entertaining us NOW! Frankly, we’re so allergic to boredom that a mere instant of stasis or confusion is enough to send us hopping to another channel, or fleeing to another room. The adjacent installations of computer-generated video by Swiss artists Alexander Hahn and Yves Netzhammer currently on display at SFMOMA require more time than most to reveal themselves, and it’s the rare visitor who sticks around that long. Are the peripatetic hordes missing out on some fantastic secret of the universe? I daresay no. Yet I consider it my public duty to encourage anyone who checks out the show in its last month to slow down their meter and get on its rhythm.

Curator Rudolf Frieling christened the exhibition "Room for Thought," which has a more expansive and abstract quality than either "Luminous Point" (the name of Hahn’s piece) or "Furniture of Proportions" (Netzhammer’s). In fact, the "room" really feels like a gulf between the artists and the viewer that is never bridged. Both pieces are cool and mechanical, technically interesting but short on warmth. Hahn, at least, has a sense of humor, a quality that goes a long way toward humanizing his work.

"Luminous Point" is initially reminiscent of treasure-hunt video games, with the camera panning across uninhabited, minimally furnished rooms and the viewer/player clicking to proceed in a particular direction or through a door or window. The space is supposedly Hahn’s New York apartment, augmented with sets and figures drawn from other places and epochs. It appears to be a silly, primitive work until you figure out how to operate the remote, and start exploring.

The best bits are the unexpected jokes, such as the descent into the lower depths (or dungeon, if you like) where a quorum of cardinals (the religious kind) appear to be meeting. Climb through another window and you’re walking on a rolling stone hill that, as the camera pulls back through an opening, now appears to be a cave and then is revealed as the cheekbones and vacant eyes of a skull. Clever, that, and amusing.

Stick with "Luminous Point" long enough and you begin to like Hahn ever so slightly. (There’s a small bench in that room, an enticement to stay and play a while longer.) Netzhammer’s piece, however, has a cruel undercurrent that does not invite any affection.

The space is dominated by what looks like an enormous ebony flashlight, which is the projection system. It’s impressive and intimidating and altogether grand, but the images coming out of it are a letdown. They defy succinct description, but they evoke an industrial, robotic, near-apocalyptic society where sheep and monkeys and humans are on the same basic level.

People tended not to stick around very long in "Furniture of Proportions" on both of my visits, but I don’t think they found Netzhammer’s critique of the baser aspects of our species distasteful. My hunch is they discerned the artist’s lack of empathy, and perhaps caught the whiff of sadism.

I could be all wet, of course, and the rapid comings and goings might simply be due to the absence of any seating. Any enticement to increase the comfort level and encourage people to linger would surely be welcome, unless cruel Mr. Nezthammer has decreed that furniture one can sit on violates his proportions.

"Room for Thought: Alexander Hahn and Yves Netzhammer" continues through October 5, 2008 at SFMOMA, 151 Third St. (between Mission and Howard). More at