Attempt to talk about the "human experience," or, worse, "infinity," especially in the context of art, and you're asking to sound like an idiot. But Rachel Rose pulls it off. Today, the 28-year-old multimedia artist is debuting her first solo exhibition in the United States, Rachel Rose: Everything and More, at the Whitney Museum of American Art: an exploration of, or immersion in, the human experience of infinity through intense sensory stimulation and abstraction.
That's a lot of meaningless-seeming words, but the complexity of the 11-and-a-half-minute video work is difficult to discuss: It creates an emotional, or visceral, reaction using seemingly random, heavily researched elements extended to a kind of audiovisual extreme. I've read several descriptions of Rose's work, and they all sound very much composed of parts, which is not what the minorly transcendental experience of her work is like at all. If I were to break Everything and More down to its most basic elements, my instinct would be to say the work is about "sound and light" in terms of formal elements and "the human experience of infinity" in terms of thematic elements, neither of which means very much.
Less abstractly, its fundamental components are, according to the Guardian: 1) NASA astronaut David Wolf's monologue about the experience of being on the Mir Space Station in the late 1990s, which mentions intense shifts from light to dark, a lack of "up" or "down," and a "terrible sunburn"; 2) roving, jilting, amphibious shots of a "neutral buoyancy lab" in Maryland, where astronauts learn to come to terms with (near) weightlessness in pools of water; 3) sped-up, disorienting, monochromatic shots of a massive EDM concert. These are collaged together using visual glue in the form of microscopic shots of milk, oil, ink, and paint being manipulated under high-intensity lights in Rose's apartment. It's all set to purposefully sampled and distorted Aretha Franklin, which Rose edited using an astronomical instrument called a spectrograph, deleting the organ, vocals, and other sounds so all that's left is the tone: recognizable, but only on some kind of fundamental level. (Similarly, all that remains of the EDM is a slightly disturbing, suggestive bass.) At times, the piece feels like an immersive music video; at others, it's more like a bizarre documentary. The effects are frequently standalone beautiful, the "visual glue" creating glittering, painterly images like the one above. Every surface becomes a reflection or something to be reflected; the industrial ceiling of the fluorescent-lit neutral buoyancy lab becomes a Rorschach test when viewed from underwater, and elements appear as part of or as transitions into other elements. Senses, senses, senses, sensory. The video is shown in a dark, carpeted room, with the shadowy forms of the Whitney's rooftop sculpture gallery occasionally visible through the screen.
Everything and More is the first installation in the Whitney's new emerging artists' series, which will place younger up-and-comers alongside the museum's storied collection of American art. Rose, who also has a show at the Serpentine Gallery in London running through November 8 and who won the 2015 Frieze Artist Award, is a good choice to kick off this series; she is perhaps a quintessential example of an up-and-comer, if she hasn't already surpassed that stage in her career and the media encircling it. (In the New Yorker's fall art preview, she was the "much-buzzed-about artist Rachel Rose." Writing for the New York Times, Blake Gopnik began his piece on Rose by stating, "The art world is always looking for the Next Big Thing, and right now, the video installations of Rachel Rose look set to be It.") Appropriately, her work shares a floor with a retrospective of paintings and sculptures by Frank Stella, who was featured in MoMA's game-changing Sixteen Americans show at the age of 23. The title of Rose's show, Everything and More, is a nod to a book of the same name (about infinity) by David Foster Wallace, another up-and-comer who probably came up too quickly to count as one for very long.
Like Wallace and his colloquial approach to complexity, Rose threatens to veer into whoa, man dorm-room philosophy, and she pulls it off in a similar way, by accessing universal feelings through intelligent specificity. There are moments of genius as emotional as they are analytical, making critics feel idiotic by comparison. "It's so good!" we say. "Just see it!" Though Everything and More (Rose's) lacks narrative, instead favoring the expository—or experiential—there is nevertheless a trajectory, with the work's ending feeling both like crescendo and let-down. Leaving the dark installation and emerging on the fifth floor of the new Whitney, among the garish Frank Stella sculptures extending from the walls and the European tourists, it's hard not to think of Wolf's feeling of emptiness upon returning home from space. "When I first came back to Earth," he says, "I thought I had ruined my life."