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Wandering into Air Conditioner & HEPA Filter, Benjamin Reiss’ solo show at Real Pain in Arlington Heights, is like sauntering into an imaginary science fair emptied of its human participants, where fanciful projects, volatile inventions, and faux-biological processes speak for themselves, toeing the line between the childlike and the sinister. Two throne-like, whimsical sculptures—intricate, three-dimensional diagrams of the machines from which the exhibition takes its name—are positioned opposite one another, engaged in an ongoing face-off at center stage. The works are called Air Conditioner and HEPA Filter (High Efficiency Particle Arrestor) (both 2020), and these pseudoscience projects coyly deconstruct their namesake machinery. Reiss’ exhibition is an HVAC fever dream—imagining a vibrant, cartoon-like internal ecosystem that captures our desire to understand, escape, and rebuild the many unstable systems on which our society is founded.
The two sculptures riff formally off of the chair, assuming its characteristics as an object of structural support while flaunting the aesthetic possibilities of its form—Air Conditioner is supported by fluffy, pink fiberglass insulation resembling chicken legs. At the same time, the “legs” of both sculptures serve as platforms for idiosyncratic mechanical systems composed of an untamed medley of media: macaroni, cellophane, plastic bottles, yarn, broom bristles, and human hair pave the way for polymer clay rats and plastic ants to live out their lives in acrylic tubes under faux tiled roofs, caught in a literal endless loop inside the closed systems that confine them. Air Conditioner and HEPA Filter loom like modern-day Baba Yagas in the space, drawing the viewer into a dream world where air circulation is elevated to folklore and state-of-the-art filtration processes attain mythic, if not dystopian, proportions.
The two walls adjacent to the sculptures feature a series of process drawings and notes by the artist that evokes the brilliant late-night cacography of a mad scientist mid-discovery. These poetic yet diagrammatic illustrations of the artist’s references and thought processes offer a second angle from which the body of work can be approached, a kind of code through which the heart of Reiss’ “inventions” might be cracked and dismantled to offer the possibility of being constructed anew.
The sculptures’ fantastical sensibility hints at a universe just slightly off-kilter from our own, one that evokes Michel Gondry’s The Science of Sleep (2006) in its ludic, uncanny staging of familiar materials, or the willfully bizarre machinery that mimics the digestive system in Wim Delvoye’s Cloaca (2000) installation. In our overheated, virus-filled world, and in the midst of California’s seemingly perpetual fire season, air conditioners and HEPA filters have become omnipresent and standardized reminders of our multifaceted precarity. Reiss’ détournement of these ubiquitous filtration systems pulls back the curtain of familiarity to reveal a hellish microcosm looming just beneath the surface.
In HEPA Filter, a Sylvester the Cat-like figure is wound tightly in intestinal pink material; in Air Conditioner, grayish rats climb greedily over one another in their one-directional tubes. Both works call to mind the bitter rat race of our late-capitalist society, which beckons with the promise of entertainment and a glistening cure-all to ennui, only to entrap us in an inescapable, and markedly unsustainable, existential hamster wheel. If these sculptures function as hyperbolized dissections of the filtration systems they’re named for, perhaps we can look to them for lessons in how to take things apart—if only to see more clearly what’s worth keeping, and what we might best leave behind.
Benjamin Reiss: Air Conditioner & HEPA Filter runs from September 18—October 16, 2021 at Real Pain (1819 3rd Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90019).