The last time I was here, a bulbous ’60s-era television placed inside a teepee was playing lesbian porn. Two 7-foot beast men, one with a wolf snout and the other in an Adidas tracksuit, stood on either side of a drum. Underneath the chatter of the art students drinking wine around me, I noticed a slow beat. The canvas drawn over the mouth of the drum slowly turned rosy, like the lining of a womb. A silhouette became visible, and I realized that though the beast men were made of metal and clay, the drum was alive. There was a person inside that drum in the mezzanine of Green Hall, the student gallery at the Yale School of Art.
Months later, I stand on the first floor of the gallery, and look down at the art now in the space that once held the drum. A computer home page is projected onto the wall. Surely this live feed of a grey desktop cannot be art, and that fuzzed white noise is not, and the eight Saran-wrapped cardboard shapes overlaid with orange, yellow and blue fat extension cords are trying to be. I walk down the stairs. Projections of the footage from two security cameras run side by side on the wall across from the desktop screen. As I approach the boxes stacked and folded into the shape of alien chrysalises, I can see brand names through the clear and green Saran wrap. These boxes once held wine bottles or oranges or the Sony Dream Machine playing out the white noise. On the wall to my left, there is a photo collage of rotting wood, mushrooms and maggots. No one else is in the gallery. The Dream Machine goes quiet, but a television tells me about the “aeroplane-sized” whale shark pulled out of the sea in Karachi, Pakistan, and beyond that, another monitor set up inside a plastic fern emits almost comical moans. The works of art talk to each other across the gallery.
Last time — once I realized there was a man in the drum — the teepee, the beast men, the hide covering the floor and the Technicolor prophets on the walls melded into meaning. There was not one exact tenor, like we are animals trapped in capitalism. But I carried the terror and wonder of it for months.
Later, having first left the new exhibit with lots of wondering but little meaning, I bring a poet-economist friend. He tells me, “I can’t do this, this is cardboard. Seriously, I hope this isn’t art. … I think people just forgot to move out, or like, just threw shit down here.” He thinks intentionality is important. He tells me that if someone reads one of his poems and finds a meaning he didn’t intend, he likes to correct them. He says that for many modern artists, “I guess their vision becomes muddled, because what they’re trying to get people to feel, it isn’t, it isn’t that successful.” My friend could provide an exhaustive account of what each of his works mean. He stops and admits that he could never call the art in the gallery worthless — without knowing the artists’ goals, he believes, he cannot offer judgment. Were each of these works explained to us, he wants me to understand, we might find the person inside of the drum.
When I return a third time that afternoon, by myself now, the desktop is open to a Web page where you can Google search for an image by drawing one. A Rothko is displayed in a computer window open on the right of the desktop screen. Back on the search page, the cursor recreates the work. It draws an orange rectangle, overlays its top half with a mustard one and then, below it, produces a taller crimson block. Will Google give us the painting? Results for “visually similar images” include a saffron iPad case, a yellow iPhone case, a mustard leather diary and a marigold workbook from a company called Forge. I notice that the desktop toolbar reads “Houman Momtazian.” This work must be his. The cursor begins to recreate the Rothko again. Now I realize it’s a loop: Computer imitates art imitates iPad case.
That night, the Art School students gather at 36 Edgewood to watch the new first-years present their work. I try to guess which one is Houman so I can ask him about his exhibit at Green Hall. An Iranian woman plays a film in which her smooth hands sort through forms and passport photos as she coos, “Do you understand my art?” “Do you understand my art not?” It’s another loop. Her accent makes the “not” sound like “now” the first five times I hear it. I imagine there’s substantial commentary about “now art” perceived as “not.”
I want to ask around for Houman, but I’m too nervous. These students, with 3-inch-tall platform shoes and graceful muscles from their dancing days, talk about the cardboard boats they built to shipwreck lesbians they were once in love with on islands. Perhaps they wouldn’t all exactly understand Houman’s Rothko imitation loop, but they would know how to talk about it intelligently. Instead, I walk out of the presentations early and Google Houman. He is a graphic designer. The unexplained cardboard sculpture must be outside of what he is comfortable with, too. As Houman sits inside with all the other art students, I email him.
Houman Momtazian agrees to talk to me about his work and lets me into Green Hall at 12:53 a.m. He is from London, about 5 feet 4 inches and is wearing dark jeans. His voice is elegant and euphonic enough to make me self-conscious. He has wild eyebrows and a welcoming laugh. As we walk toward the basement, I explain to Houman that in this gallery without placards, I knew the installation was his because of the computer toolbar.
He says, “Oh, yes, just this film is mine,” pointing at the screen displaying the Rothko Google drawing. Instead of it all coming together now that I’m next to the artist, I am assured that these are disparate works of art. Houman explains to me that on a certain day the students all bring the work they want to show into the gallery. Then Sam Messer, the associate dean, curates them. Maybe someone brought in the man and Sam put him in the drum.
The clips about the whale shark in Karachi are still running. It is a huge animal — one and a half Houmans would fit between its eyes. A newscaster narrates the three-day exhibition where the actual shark was displayed. “People at the exhibition are climbing onto the fish and crushing its bones and there is no one to stop them.” The whale and the Rothko were not meant to be conflated, but as Houman tells me how he is fascinated by “people who go to the MOMA and buy postcards of art, or who have reproductions of Rothkos in their living rooms that aren’t just white bordered prints, but are on canvas, with texture,” I think of people knifing off pieces of whale shark meat.
Houman Momtazian tells me, “I’m interested in mimesis, imitations … and that Google made an algorithm for understanding art.” His film continues to loop. Nearby, a biologist in Karachi explains that now, “We need to separate its vertebrae, its meat.” Google cannot find the man in the drum, but it understands Rothko as an individual yellow block. The biologist will understand the whale shark by examining each of its individual parts. And I turn to notice the Dream Machine again. Its muddled rhythm complements the ceaseless creation of the orange and mustard and crimson.