The St. Petersburg Paradox, currently on view at Swiss Institute, is a group show of refreshing intellectual rigor. The exhibition’s curatorial design is so tightly wound that it forms a kind of singular entity in which each featured artwork compels the viewer to consider the philosophy of its larger scheme: namely, the metaphysics of gambling. The title refers to a paradox of human psychology: When people are presented with a theoretical lottery game that has no risk and infinite payoff, and are asked how much they would be willing to pay to play, they will set an illogically small sum as their maximum—say, $25, when a simple coin toss stands to double this sum again and again.
The St. Petersburg Paradox courts the aesthetic of the crapshoot table. The main gallery floor is divided into two sections by a half wall painted the dark forest green of a billiards table. Behind the wall, blocked off like the VIP section of a gambling hall, is a platform area upholstered with Cayetano Ferrer’s Remnant Recomposition, a patchwork of casino-floor carpet samples whose clashing patterns abrasively hum. One almost hallucinates the stale cigar smoke of the parlor, the flash of card sharks’ green visors. Also on the main floor, Sarah Ortmeyer’s elegant installation SANKT PETERSBURG PARADOX creates a delicate maze of upended marble chessboards and tables, upon which onyx, obsidian, alabaster, and actual bird eggs precariously rest. The work impresses upon viewers the fragility of chance.
The exhibition romances the poetics of the gamble as well. For Bad Faith (1994), Douglas Gordon wagered his entire allotted budget for an upcoming exhibition on whether or not it would snow in Stuttgart on the upcoming Christmas Day. Underneath the wall text of Gordon’s poetic letter detailing the bet, two television sets feature analog video of solitary windows overlooking the blue dusk of Stuttgart streets on Christmas Eve, capturing the final hours in which Gordon’s wager would be won or lost. These tense vistas expose the sentimental side of gambling. Looking through these melancholic windows, we are held aloft in the purgatory of hoping, in an elongation of that crucial moment when the dice are still in midair. It seems it may snow any minute in Stuttgart, 1994, but it does not.
Ericka Beckman’s brilliant and terrifying video YOU THE BETTER, installed in the Swiss Institute’s basement, approaches the “game” as a philosophical concept that resists logic and is prone to turn hauntingly absurd. Viewers must pass through an ominous black doorway and round the bend of a brick-lined hallway illuminated in dark blue to access the thirty-minute video, which depicts a single team inscrutably battling what seems to be an imaginary opponent in a repetitive, basketball-like game with ridiculous rules. Unseen cheerleaders encourage the team of five as they compete against no one in the dark gym: “Don’t Surrender! Don’t Stop! Get that ball right over the top!” In Samuel Beckett’s existentialist masterpiece Endgame, characters in a displaced room circle round each other like the last few chess pieces on the board, their speech unraveling into empty cliché. A similarly desperate sense of futility pervades Beckman’s desolate gym. Beckman’s video presents a horror situation in which arbitrary rules possess cosmic significance, and the repetitive throwing of the ball becomes a desperate attempt to uncover what this meaning might be. Perhaps hell is having to play the same game over and over again.
In cheery opposition to the mortal gloom of the basement, Tabor Robak’s A* shimmers on the gallery’s main floor. A carbuncle of fourteen massive HD video screens combined to display a stunning composite image, A* demos a series of animated, mobile-phone-style games characterized by flashy graphics and a series of perpetually good-natured wins and losses. A* is a shrine to the mindless variety of digital gaming. The stakes are low; these mesmerizing puzzles, here displayed at an almost religiously large scale, might be played forever without risk of material loss.
Whether or not we should “take the game seriously” is another paradox this exhibition presents. At the threshold of the main gallery, Giovanni Anselmo’s untitled work, an Arte Povera masterpiece from 1968, taunts viewers with a looming, if presently neutralized, terror. While the constituent concrete slabs may at first appear innocuous, the stones are in fact hugged by two fraying, live electrical wires only just too distant from one another to connect. The dormant stone and its potential electrical threat stand as a warning of a risk we may not take seriously—but perhaps we should.
Often drawing more attention to its curatorial frame and philosophical underpinnings than to the works that compose it, The St. Petersburg Paradox positions itself as omnipotent casino—a haunting maze of chances taken, some trivial, some fatal. The exhibition’s pieces are positioned like a series of strategic moves, provocatively elucidating the presented theme. In this show, the house most certainly wins.
The St. Petersburg Paradox is on view at Swiss Institute through August 17. Swiss Institute, 18 Wooster Street, New York City, 10013.