As a visual antic, the falling piano never gets old. What started with Charlie Chaplin and then Laurel and Hardy has proliferated in cartoons. The beauty of the gag is the instrument itself, a rarified and expensive object, which comes to ruin at the expense of some rascal, deviant or numbskull. Often, the piano meets its own end while crushing an adversary or unsuspecting victim below.
In the Hall of Architecture at the Carnegie Museum of Art, a piano hangs suspended by a rope as part of the exhibition Sebastian Errazuriz: Look Again. Curated by Rachel Delphia, The Alan G. and Jane A. Lehman Curator of Decorative Arts and Design, the exhibition is the first solo exhibition for Errazuriz, an internationally recognized Chilean-born, New York-based artist and designer. "The Piano" is one of the best things in the show. Viewing it, you understand the joke immediately, but once you walk beneath it you feel the enormity of that tenuous boundary between life and death.
While "The Piano" sets a tone for the rest of the exhibition, nothing else really matches its simple genius. Yes, the rest of Errazuriz's work is beautifully crafted and clever, but in the end it comes off a little too slick, and meticulous to a fault. There is nothing else quite as impulsive or unruly as that dangling piano.
The only other pieces that come close in straightforward camp are "Duck Lamp" and "Duck Fan." Both pieces use taxidermied birds that are, in fact, geese. The choice of the word "duck" by the artist was deliberate because of the way it sounds. But it also seems that the word has associations with cartoon characters such as Donald and Daffy (who, incidentally, have a dueling piano scene in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, a film whose main human character, Eddie Valiant, hates "toons" because one of them killed his brother by dropping a piano on him).
But the duck pieces are more than just comic. They are also alluring, awkward, fragile, and sad yet durable. In the gallery guide, Errazuriz explains that his idea for the lamp was "so morbid and yet so beautiful ... naïve and ... real ... it's so wrong but it's so right." Just like "The Piano," the ducks are a simple expression of the brevity of life.
Simplicity is also the key to "Personal Registration of Time Passing," a group of found watches that have had their hour and minute hands removed as a reminder that life is fleeting.
Errazuriz's acute awareness of death has no doubt influenced his prolific output, but ultimately there is too much included in this show. As a result, some of the smaller and more poignant pieces get lost. For example, "La Moneda Fire Screen (prototype)" turns a functional piece into a memorial and testament to the events that took place during the 1973 coup d'état in Chile. But its subtle message is lost amongst various snow globes, salt-and-pepper shakers and fly-swatters with more obvious political messages. And yet a whole wall is taken up with "Occupy Chairs" that feel disingenuous, as they were sold to wealthy collectors at the Armory Show Art Fair in New York at a high price with the illusion that the messages they contain are somehow a type of "Trojan Horse" that infiltrates the homes of the 1 percent.
Other works that are more interesting are just not accessible. It is impossible, for instance, to get a real sense of the "Narcissus Desk" because you can look at it only from a distance and can't gaze down into its mirrored top. The same goes for "Time Lapse," a stripped-down Norton motorcycle in which, because of the way it is positioned in the gallery, you can't really see the colorful and delicate bird encased in its gas tank. At least the gallery supplies iPads that show the things you can't see, like the playful and innovative "Explosion," and the "Porcupine" cabinets in motion.
But perhaps most intriguing of all is the wall of sketches that gives viewers access to Errazuriz's unconventional thought processes. While they are not entirely abstract, they bring to mind the "automatic" drawing process that New York School artists like Robert Motherwell and Jackson Pollock learned from the Chilean painter Roberto Matta. Matta explained: "The New Yorkers became aware of these things through contact with us [the Surrealists in exile], although, as in a Chaplin movie, we had arrived utterly lost." And so we are back to Chaplin, who at the end of the 1914 film "His Musical Career" makes the best of things by playing the piano as it sinks into the lake.