Madeline Hollander is an artist interested in quotidian movement, movement habits and adaptations to change. It is therefore fitting that their art prompted me to return to a once mundane activity that I had previously avoided during the pandemic. I went to a museum – the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, which is showing Hollander’s first solo exhibition at the museum.
Hollander is primarily a choreographer, but this isn’t her first foray into the art world. For her “Ouroboros: Gs” for the Whitney Biennale in 2019, she made a dance of installing sections of the Whitney flood control system, a task that drew attention to the museum’s location on the edge of the Hudson River, a precarious location in a rapidly changing climate.
The current exhibition “Madeline Hollander: Flatwing” is a video installation without a live component. In a dark room, we see infrared footage of Hollander’s nightly search for a particular type of cricket in Kauai, Hawaii. Spoiler alert: She won’t find any.
Of course there is more to it than that. The object of their search is not an ancient insect. Due to a genetic mutation, male flat-winged crickets lack the ridges on their wings to scrape out the mating songs we call chirping. That silence is a downside in the dating scene, but it has protected it from a parasitic fly that has nearly wiped out the island’s easy-to-find noisy cricket population. To attract mates, flatwings still rely on the chirping of the remaining undamped males. Flatwings keep dancing, but to someone else’s music for as long as the music lasts.
It’s easy to see how this might attract the mind of a resourceful choreographer. What Hollander really chases is metaphor. That her search is futile only gives her more potential meaning. As the chief curatorial assistant Clémence White eloquently explains in an accompanying essay, the silence of the flat wings could be heard as an alarm for ecological change; Her dance could be “a harbinger of our own inability to adapt”.
The failure is weird too. In the 16-minute video, Hollander’s point of view is stumbling through the rainforest, while the dark, blurry, pink-purple video doesn’t reveal crickets or anything else throughout. Is that a cricket? No, but there is a chicken.
The soundtrack also features humor in a phone conversation between Hollander and Marlene Zuk, an evolutionary biologist, an expert on flat wings. The way they pass each other is almost a comedy routine of mental habits across disciplines: Abbott and Costello mock the gap between art and science.
A habit that scientists and artists have in common is to make something of their research. Hollander’s installation – supplemented by drawings and mind maps in an adjoining gallery – is more like a scrapbook for a project that has not or not yet worked out. The experience of visiting it in person adds little to what you could get from staying home and reading about it.
But if you’re still at the Whitney – say, to see Julie Mehretu’s amazing mid-career retrospective on the same floor – you can check out Hollander’s video. You won’t find flat wings, but you will hear a cricket song and see a sky full of stars.
Madeline Hollander: Flat wing
Until August 8th at the Whitney Museum of American Art, whitney.org. Advance booking required.