Ryan Trecartin’s Manic, Dystopic Art Makes for One Killer Party

When video artist Sue De Beer was a visiting instructor at the Cleveland Institute of Art, she attended a potluck dinner at an apartment on campus. While she was still jet-lagged from a trip to Berlin, the students loaded her plate with chocolate cake and chili, then took her into a backroom and showed her A Family Finds Entertainment, which they had found on the social networking site Friendster.com. Even though exhausted and disoriented, she knew she had seen something special. Back in New York, she told Rachel Greene, then a curator at the New Museum, about the experience. Ms. Greene contacted “Ryan T” on Friendster and requested a video. He sent it to her in her a package that included a broken mirror. Scrawled across the glass were the words: “I totally Googled You.”

In a matter of months, Mr. Trecartin’s work would be exhibited by the Getty, at QED Gallery in Los Angeles, and the 2006 Whitney Biennial where he was the youngest artist on display. As early as January 2006, when Artforum magazine published the first of many glowing reviews, the artist was met with nearly universal acclaim. He was then just 24 years old. As the art world began to recognize Mr. Trecartin as one of the most talented artists of his time, the cult of supporters that discovered him on the Internet only grew. Several of his contemporaries and followers have said with straight faces that he is a god.

The audience’s reactions at the PS1 opening varied widely. People sat in the uncanny private spaces of his installations wearing headphones, their eyes fixed on the screens. Some of them laughed volubly, slapping their knees. Others, their mouths agape, were visibly upset. The exhibition is separated into two sections, Re’Search Wait’s, a series of four films that reference market research and the superficial consumer during the collapse of late capitalism, and Trill-ogy Comp, three films about a corporate landscape where the white collar workers’ full-time jobs consist in working to keep their full-time jobs, a cycle of meaninglessness. The environment Mr. Trecartin has created is far from the typical museum experience. In some rooms, visitors must climb a ladder and get into a bed resting atop a stack of cinder blocks to find a seat in front of the screen. Chairs are attached to weight lifting exercise machines. People sit on metal bleachers positioned in front of an industrial strength fan that keeps the room cold and breezy. The physical experience of watching Mr. Trecartin’s films is as postmodern as the world they represent.

In P.opular S.ky, the fashion designer Telfar Clemens plays a boss holding an incongruously raucous meeting in an RV (appropriately Mr. Trecartin met Mr. Clemens at a party the designer was DJing; by midnight, Mr. Trecartin was doing splits on the dance floor). All of the workers in the film wear drab white clothing and blonde wigs. They desire to “make some new people.” The breaking of glass is a recurring image. Characters shatter mirrors with the edge of a Blackberry. Superficially, the piece is about the most tedious of topics (a business meeting) but it excavates menace out of this tedium: the innocuous objects scattering the room take on the appearance of torture devices—a piece of luggage hangs from a noose, ceiling fans are piled on top of a wooden loft like knives.

“You know what would be really romantic?” Mr. Clemens asks in the film.

What follows is one of the rare moments of pure silence and stillness in Mr. Trecartin’s work as Mr. Clemens fails to come up with an answer to his own question.

“Is that your idea?” Another character responds venomously. Before anyone can reply there is a crash of noise and the mind is back to wandering.

mmiller@observer.com