'Ignisfatuus' is too complicated

April 06, 1996|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

The concept is romantic and beautiful. The thing itself is extremely complex and difficult to understand. And after you've gone to the trouble to prep yourself for the event, not a whole lot happens. There are more satisfying experiences in the name of art.

"Ignisfatuus," the latest presentation of the Contemporary, is an installation by Paul Etienne Lincoln at the conservatory in Druid Hill Park.

A British-born artist now living in New York, Lincoln is known for his staggeringly intricate creations, combining natural forces and man-made mechanisms, which actually have something to communicate in a roundabout way.

The term "Ignisfatuus" refers both to a glowing nocturnal marsh gas and to the "expression of delusive hope," as the Contemporary's literature puts it. Nine months in the making, the work involves music, human organs, phosphorescence and the lunar cycle.

In the center of the conservatory are three jars containing resin casts of the circular systems of three human organs -- the heart, the brain and a lung. Near these jars is a turntable equipped with discs on which are recordings of arias sung by the great diva Rosa Ponselle, who spent her decades-long retirement in Baltimore.

High above all this, near the conservatory's central apex, are three tubes containing water and the scores of Ponselle's arias in phosphorescent ink. As the lunar cycle progresses, the records play Ponselle's arias every third day at dusk, increasingly loud as the moon waxes.

Meanwhile, one of the tubes descends from on high, while the ink dissolves in the water.

On the evening of the full moon, the singing becomes loud enough to trip a sensor in the descended tube that sends the now luminescent water through another series of tubes and into a coil under one of the organs, where it lights up.

Last Wednesday evening there was a full moon and the thing worked -- not entirely as it was supposed to, but well enough to light up the coil under the heart, to a smattering of applause from the almost 400 people who squeezed into the conservatory to witness this event.

On the next two full moon nights, May 3 and June 1, the lung and the brain, respectively, should light up.

The idea that brought forth this immensely laborious creation, apparently, is that nature, humankind (created by nature) and art (created by humans) can and ideally should exist together to their mutual benefit. It's a moving thought.

And the fact that Lincoln chose Druid Hill Park as the site, and then chose Ponselle selections from "Norma," an opera about the Druids, who worshiped nature, adds a bit of interest to the experience.

But this is a terribly esoteric project. It requires a prodigious amount of explanation. And except on the two more nights when this creation performs, people who visit the conservatory won't really be able to see anything happening.

Lincoln must follow his vision, of course. But this is by far the most abstruse project the Contemporary has ever undertaken. With such notable exhibits as "Mining the Museum" and "Going for Baroque," the Contemporary presented intellectually rigorous projects that were also reasonably accessible.

That seems a better course than this.

Oh, and one other thing. Visitors to "Ignisfatuus" can hear fairly good recordings of Ponselle's singing in the greenhouse behind jTC the conservatory. But the dreadful sound that comes from the latex discs Lincoln had made to use as part of the main event amounts to a travesty of that glorious voice. For one artist to

treat another so, in the name of art, is a disservice indeed.

Pub Date: 4/06/96

'Ignisfatuus'

Where: The Conservatory at Druid Hill Park, Gwynns Falls Parkway at McCullogh Street

When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays, through June 2, and openings on evenings of the full moon, May 3 and June 1, 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.

$ Call: (410) 333-8600

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