In 'Siren,' artists and poets singing from the rocks

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In 'Siren,' artists and poets singing from the rocks
A handout photo shows an installation view of “Siren (some poetics)" at Amant Foundation in Brooklyn. Front, the artist duo Shanzhai Lyric’s “Untitled (Portrait of a Siren),” 2022; back, Shanzhai Lyric’s “The Incomplete Poem,” 2015-ongoing. (Adrianna Glaviano/Amant via The New York Times)

by Travis Diehl

NEW YORK, NY.- In the scalloped courtyard of Amant, an East Williamsburg kunsthalle, a sparkling chime cuts the rustling gray air. It’s the sound of “Senti” (2022), by Mayra A Rodríguez Castro, a set of aluminum and silver rods mounted on the roof like a weather vane. In the synesthetic world of “Siren (some poetics),” this is a siren — a warning, a wail, a cry for help.

It takes a moment to decipher the other work in the garden: two junkpile sculptures by Ser Serpas made with discards gleaned from the neighborhood. This patch of Brooklyn yielded a blanched patio umbrella, old school desks, some twisted metal. Like a rock, it hits you: This is the wreckage of the ships lured to shore by a monster’s irresistible song.

Obliquely activist, newly timeless, “Siren” sounds a contemporary cri de coeur. The title recalls Homer’s “Odyssey,” but also the ambulances of March 2020, the police cars of that June; the air-raid sirens of Beirut or Kyiv. And it faces the gendered overtones of both the mythic and the modern registers of the word. Although Homer didn’t describe their looks, the sirens have been portrayed for centuries as women with birds’ or fishes’ bodies, their honeyed song not only a spell but a bitter bait and switch for lovesick seamen — at least until 19th-century “history” painters decided they were bathing beauties. It’s an exhibition from the perspective of the maligned Sirens. (All but one of the 17 artists in the show identifies as a woman.)

Like the daughters of unburned witches, “Siren” performs the expected tricks and incantations — in other words, poems. The show’s curator, Quinn Latimer, also writes poetry (among other things), and so do many of the artists. Accordingly, the artists treat language as a material, such as Iris Touliatou’s “Happiness, 2018 to 2022 (to Laurie), Vol. III,” where software pushes evocative random excerpts from unread spam emails to a small screen. The text of “Sardines,” by Bernadette Mayer, a lauded Brooklyn-born poet, unpacks the dense symbolism of tinned fish, while each letter appears on the page color-coded according to her idiosyncratic system.

The queerer idioms of writing — blending, pilfering, mistranslating — coalesce in “The Incomplete Poem” (2015 and ongoing) by an artist duo, Shanzhai Lyric, an ever-growing collection of bootleg and otherwise garbled English-language T-shirts. Hung on a rack, like 100 pages in a book, the so-called “poetry garments” form a contemporary epic in the tradition of Beowulf or Xuanzang (and maybe poke fun at a project not on view by the similarly fashion-minded collective Bernadette Corporation, cheekily called “The Complete Poem”). Odysseus wandered a relatively confined wilderness — today, language itself meanders across globalized oceans, trailing wrong-footed verse.

Meanwhile, Penelope sat at home, weaving and raveling. Hence, maybe, the prevalence of textiles here — including the hanging hunter-green felt tapestry by Dena Yago, incised with the contours of rabbits from the films “Bambi” and “Donnie Darko,” or a rigginglike sculpture by Bia Davou, “Untitled (Odyssey),” which includes a set of four fabric sail works from the 1980s, unfurled and embroidered with selections from the “Odyssey” in Homer’s Greek. In Rivane Neuenschwander’s “The Silence of the Sirens” (2013), a felt hanging, the words “Sirens” and “silence” mark its cream surface, the sibilant residue of a Franz Kafka passage.

Odysseus wanted to hear the Siren song and live to brag about it. He had his crew plug their ears but lash him to the mast. The recessed casts sunk into Amant’s walls by Patricia L. Boyd, made from crumb-speckled cooking grease, evoke the Greeks’ wax earplugs and are a striking marriage of the abject and the mechanical.

“Siren” likewise toys with the drama of attraction and repulsion: When the siren wails, do you dive toward it, or run away? For Shanzhai Lyric’s “Untitled (Portrait of a Siren),” from 2022, three pairs of security gates like those scanning for shoplifters at Old Navy form a ring like a Neolithic monument. If the visitor has pocketed a plastic anti-theft tag from the mound in the corner of another gallery, maybe emboldened by the piece’s echo of Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ candy piles, they trigger an eerie chord of detuned, softened alarms. It’s like sailing safely past a property crime.

In a sense, the imagined grotesquerie of the Homeric Sirens was yet another way for patriarchs to repress the ambivalence of other voices. These artists claim the possibility that an incantation could be so powerful. What’s the danger here? Maybe the jagged rocks of easy metaphor. Maybe stasis. In art and poetry, ambivalence means you’re still moving.

In Liliane Lijn’s “Queen of Hearts, Queen of Diamonds” (1980), big glass prisms on stacks of aluminum sheets resemble crags, lighthouses or, vaguely, figures. The queens’ heads flick chunks of rainbow to the wall and floors and onto other works — one graces the seven blown-glass organ pipes of Katja Aufleger’s “Sirens (Al Wakra Vol. III),” from 2019, tuned to the pitches of Qatar’s singing dunes and played by a motorized pump. The instrument exhales a low, forlorn hoot — an artist’s re-creation of the sound the wind-borne sand makes in a special stretch of desert, whether anyone’s listening or not.

‘Siren (some poetics)’

Through March 5 at Amant, 315 Maujer St., Brooklyn,

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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