Questions only art can answer

“The Quick and the Dead” makes conceptual art accessible

Warning: “The Quick and the Dead” may disorient some viewers.

The newest Walker Art Center exhibition explores the boundaries of human perception through science and art. For willing participants, a trip through the gallery is like mental yoga, flexing and bending their sense of time and the world around them.

There is, for instance, the light fixture that replicates the sunshine of exactly one week ago. Or the strip of alternating green, blue and brown cloth that represents, to scale, the geography of the 49th parallel.

Curator Peter Eleey manages to demystify conceptual art for the casual viewer. Some pieces are bewildering  — as they were intended to be, probably — but many more are thought provoking, surprising and even funny.

Importantly, there is little in “The Quick and the Dead” that feels glib or gimmicky. These pieces raise big questions about the nature of time and our relationship to the world, about the invisible and unknowable that art is uniquely suited to address.

The signature image of the show may be Kris Martin’s “Still alive,” a cast bronze skull coated in silver.

Martin supposedly based the mold for the sculpture on three-dimensional X-ray scans of his own head. Imagine playing both Yorick and Hamlet at the same time.

“Still alive” touches on one of the recurring themes of “The Quick and the Dead”: the physical and temporal limits of human life.

In a video by Paul Ramirez Jonas, “Longer Day,” the artist mounts a camera to his dashboard and then takes to the highway. Ramirez Jonas speeds west, chasing the setting sun toward the horizon in hopes of extending his day by one hour.

The video lasts about 20 minutes.

Adrian Piper quantifies one year in her life in a collection of honey jars that contain clippings of her hair and nails.

An accompanying text begins “1985 was a bad year” and goes on to detail her father’s illness, the disintegration of her marriage and her denial of tenure at her job. Look again at the line of jars and you might notice the hair seems to get progressively grayer.

It is just one of many pieces in “The Quick and the Dead” that attempts to measure or quantify time in a unique way. There also is a bicycle tire suspended upright, but only as long as a melting block of ice can hold it.

The photography of Harold Edgerton captured moments in time that pass so quickly they don’t even register in human consciousness. A scientist, Edgerton pioneered the use of strobe lights to make photographs that record only a fraction of a second.

Probably his best known images show a droplet of milk spreading like a crown after it hits a red countertop. That one isn’t here, but a similar image is: Edgerton’s “Spilt Milk” depicts the extremely brief moment after a glass breaks but before it releases its contents.

Nearby, an untitled film by Michael Sailstorfer extends one of those imperceptible moments into a five-minute magic trick.

Sailstorfer filled a metal warehouse with explosives and then blew it up in front of a high-speed camera. We never see the actual explosion; instead, Sailstorfer plays and reverses a few milliseconds of footage, so that it looks like the metal structure is slowly inhaling and exhaling.

Jason Dodge’s “INTO BLACK” touches on both time and geography. It consists of nothing but sheets of exposed photo paper, interspersed throughout the gallery.

In 2006, Dodge mailed the sheets around to people in Greenland, Kenya, China and Minneapolis, among other places, with instructions to expose the sheets on the vernal equinox. They are now identical, essentially, but they carry in them an undecipherable record of the photons shining down on one place on one day.

Again and again, “The Quick and the Dead” asks viewers to take these kinds of brief mental journeys. That’s why stepping out onto Hennepin Avenue can make for a strange transition to the here and now.

Why not wander into the Sculpture Garden, instead?

Parts of “The Quick and the Dead” extend beyond the gallery, including a wind chime installation by artist Pierre Huyghe just beyond “Spoonbridge and Cherry.”

Huyghe tuned each of the chimes so that they replicate one of every note in a piece by avant garde composer John Cage. On a windy day they chime all at once and without end, both compressing and expanding Cage’s score.

You could sit down in the grass and meditate on that mind-bending concept. Or, you could just listen to the chimes, which would be quite beautiful even without the big idea behind them.

Go see it
“The Quick and the Dead” runs through Sept. 27 at Walker Art Center, 1750 Hennepin Ave. 375-7600.