Sculpture Magazine January 1998
Sarratt Gallery at Vanderbilt University
A jocular stab at institutional secrecy, Michael Aurbach’s interactive installation, titled The Institution (1997) is sheathed in unrelieved galvanized sheet metal and studded with hundreds of screws. The viewer is first confronted with a parodic triumphal arch whose two swiftly moving message boards proclaim: “We have no comments at this time” and “We regret any hardships created by this situation.” Their approach monitored on closed circuit TV, visitors then pass under the triangular arch, where the broken beam of a motion detector acknowledges their presence with a jarring hiss. Treading on protective, insulating rubber mats, they next face The Institution itself, marked by two blind “eyes” on a facade that is Lilliputian in comparison with the oversized arch.
Extending a hand to separate the black curtains covering one of the facade’s two windows, the viewer is greeted with a sharp, sizzling sound and a jagged red flash. Equally startling is the image of the viewer’s own backside on a TV screen as he or she bends over to peer inside the cubicle. Dark curtains framing the screen provide an ironic allusion to the centuries-old cloth of honor, a motif in Western art that denotes the eminence of the person depicted. Two more message boards provide constant reinforcement for the absent minion who, one imagines, inhabits the claustrophobic space: “Never reveal your sources;” “Alter personal files;” “Avoid direct contact with employees.” A board of switches, a computer keyboard, and a telephone–all inoperative–await the servant’s use.
After these initial contacts, the visitor comes to understand that The Institution’s identity is decidedly masculine and that its propensity is for the covert. The triangular entryway, for instance, is a clever imitation not only of the administration building at Aurbach’s own university, but also of the inseam of a man’s pants; and the patterning on the door of the facade is, in fact, like a large zipper, the metal flap at the top replicating the zipper’ s pull. The organization is thus “zipped up,” sealed against disclosure. The triangle over the miniature door of the facade, moreover, would fit exactly inside the opening of the “triumphal arch,” indicating that the “small” men of The Institution actually cower under their “big” image. The mask-like “eyes” of the facade, furthermore, imitate a Klansman’s hood, the symbol of an organization which is not only clandestine, but whose governance is predominantly masculine. And, last, the diminutive spire behind the facade’s crenellated roofline is an unmistakable emblem of the “little” men in charge.
Other facetious details underscore The Institution’s insecurity and corresponding pretensions. Numbers attached to the back of the entry arch, indicating heights of four, five, and six feet, are like those in convenience stores allowing a clerk to gauge the height of a departing intruder. And the sheet metal on the facade, patterned like rough stones, makes a dual reference to the rustication of the university building, which is the artist’s model, and to the use of such sheeting under mobile homes to make them appear to have foundations.
The key word here is “appear.” Though made to look like a fortress, The Institution is actually cleverly designed in modules for easy disassembly and transport. The spire, for example, is hoisted up on plumbing pipe, and the metal sheeting covers a wooden core. In certain lighting, furthermore, the metal surface seems almost to disappear, suggesting that The Institution is more a mirage than an entity. The whole thing is a big laugh.
Nonetheless, a reflection the viewer realizes that, to borrow Emily Dickinson’s words, Aurbach’s “glee glaze[s]” and his “play turns piercing earnest.” The Institution, the artist asserts, is suspicious, stealthy, and ultimately counterfeit. One is reminded of Robert Motherwell’s testimony at a Congressional subcommittee hearing: “The artist’s awareness…is one…of the few guardians of the inherent sanity and equilibrium of the human spirit that we have.”