Detail from Philippe Parreno's 'Danny La Rue' (2013), part of his new show at New York's Park Avenue Armory
Detail from Philippe Parreno's 'Danny La Rue' (2013), part of his new show at New York's Park Avenue Armory

Throw open the heavy wooden doors of the Park Avenue Armory’s drill hall and you enter an immense chamber ablaze with light. Disembodied marquees dangle from the rafters, their grids of white lightbulbs winking on and off in synchronised glee, like an indoor recreation of Times Square, circa 1940. They advertise nothing but themselves, they pulsate with abstract hilarity, and suggest that good times will be had by all. But if so much incandescence led you to expect an evening of vintage razzle-dazzle, you’d be disappointed. Be warned: what you get instead is Philippe Parreno’s overinflated installation H {N)Y P N(Y} OSIS (presumably pronounced “hypnosis”), whose pleasures rarely exceed the title’s typographical pretence.

The Armory’s spring blowout required a triumvirate of big-name curators: Alex Poots, the artistic director who will soon be taking his talents to the as-yet-unborn Culture Shed in New York; Hans-Ulrich Obrist, poobah-in-chief of London’s Serpentine Gallery; and Tom Eccles, who is nurturing his profession’s future at Bard College. That’s not all. The list of personnel involved in the piece’s creation runs to feature-film length, and includes a pianist, composers, actors, directors, sound technicians, robot programmers, visual effects compositors, dramaturges, and even a fellow artist, Tino Seghal. Films play on screens, which rise and fall, bleachers rotate, pianos sound without being touched, microphones record street noise and funnel it indoors. The result of this binge of manpower and technology is an experience of such crushing hollowness that I managed to feel claustrophobic even in that immense room.

I can imagine a different and much more successful iteration of these same elements — a 2013 installation at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris was apparently spectacular and exciting — and even now Parreno is tweaking as he goes. But here the succession of music and movies and flashing lights quickly goes somnolent. At first, visitors mill around, waiting for something to happen, but the only activity consists of those up-and-down screens, flashing lights, and, well, other visitors milling around. Instead of, say, brassy vaudeville or Broadway tunes or operetta waltzes to go with the old-fashioned marquees, the soundtrack is a moody mix of Morton Feldman, György Ligeti, and other musical sculptors of atmosphere.

When the overhead brilliance dims, a grid of LEDs comes to life in the form of Ann Lee, an anime character made of pixels, who addresses her viewers with a certain mechanical melancholy. It turns out that she has been ripped from her original storyline and recycled as a conceptual puppet, the legal property of Parreno and his colleague Pierre Huyghe. She explains the workings of this digital slavery, and is immediately supplanted by several flesh-and-blood prepubescent girls who fan out among the crowd with well-rehearsed lines and robotic demeanour. “I wanted to spend time with Philippe and Pierre, but they were very busy,” a little Stepford girl says. “Would you prefer to be too busy or not busy enough?” Then she finishes with an innocent existential question: “What is the difference between a sign and melancholia?” Dunno, actually.

A second film starts: “June 8, 1968”. Though the colours are bright, the definition high, and the summer day fine, the gloom thickens nevertheless. The camera rides a train through a summer landscape, as assorted sombre Americans hold a vigil by the side of the tracks. They are, we are told, watching a re-enactment of the procession that took Robert F. Kennedy’s martyred body from New York to Washington, D.C.

Another screen, another haunting tableau. Now, the camera’s eye prowls through an unpeopled room at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in the 1950s, and a voice that is unmistakably, yet not quite, Marilyn Monroe’s itemises its contents. A fountain pen scratches across a paper, leaving, if only you could make it out, an intimate confession in the thick liquid trail. Actually, there’s nobody here but robots. One artificial brain controls the camera — Marilyn’s soulless eye — another speaks her words, a third guides the pen. OK, got it: an icon is more algorithm than human being; peel back the veneer on any super-celebrity and what you get is more veneer, just a set of design decisions. In the final shot the camera pulls back to reveal what we already know, that the room is a sound stage, that art is artifice and so is an artist’s life.

Maybe it’s because the show’s glacial pace and two-hour run time gave me too little to think about, but I kept wondering how a contemporary French artist like Parreno could set off to find the essence of America and come up with . . . RFK and Marilyn Monroe? It’s as if Jeff Koons went to France and returned with sculptures of Edith Piaf and Maurice Chevalier.

The piece, whatever it’s called, has its moments. A short film about a little boy in Chinatown shows us the household goblins he fears as animated creatures, and the mixture of gritty realism and whimsy is irresistible. (But why does it close with a view of Manhattan from decidedly un-Chinese Long Island City?) The pianist Mikhail Rudy gives a suitably mystical and expressively illuminated performance of Scriabin, who invented the notion of an automated light show synchronised to music. (In his version, the piano would control both.)

In the filmed finale on the largest screen, an audience in the Park Avenue drill hall gazes raptly at something, presumably hypnotised by H {N)Y P N(Y} OSIS. That specially commissioned and freshly finished segment, called “The Crowd”, holds the key to the whole staggeringly self-congratulatory opus. Having programmed us in various ways to think what we are told, Parreno now demonstrates what we should feel: awe in the presence of his greatness. No thanks.

To August 2, armoryonpark.org

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