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Finding Sense in Nonsense

Museum show ferrets out the folly in many media. OFFBEAT ART

SOME art works have titles that only the experts can pronounce correctly, but a new show at the Whitney Museum of American Art has a name nobody can pronounce at all: ``NON%*@#&]SENSE.'' The subject of the exhibition, as the more intelligible parts of the title indicate, is nonsense. To quote from program notes by Allen S. Weiss, it's about ``silliness, senselessness ... insanity, folly ... balderdash, fiddlefaddle ... gibber, jabber, patter....'' And don't forget ``horsefeathers.''

The program includes film, video, audio, and performance. In itself, this variety of media illustrates Dr. Weiss's point that nonsense is lurking just about everywhere, needing only ``the slightest typo, lapsus, deviation, or deformity'' to bring it out from behind the ``machinations of meaning'' that normally conceal it. ``NON%*@#&]SENSE'' is a serious attempt to ferret it out, have a good look at it, and perhaps make something of it. ``Nonsense might not mean,'' Weiss writes, ``but it can be used.'' Hence this effort to set up ``an experiment, a user's manual, a tool for establishing an archaeology' of its many manifestations.

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Weiss has a background in both philosophy and aesthetics, so I wasn't surprised when he told me recently that he considers ``word and image'' to be twin supports of the Whitney exhibition; after all, newspaper headlines and TV programs are two of the best places to find nonsense in everyday life. The show explores not only the landscape of nonsense but the terrain of sense that's right next door. In the process it suggests new things about, in Weiss's words, ``how meaning is constituted - where does it end, how is it used?''

When asked about his own relationship with nonsense, Weiss says the question puts him ``in a double bind'' because he's involved in different activities. ``It depends on which me you're speaking to,'' he says. ``As a theoretician, a critic, and perhaps as a curator, I can't stop making sense. But as a reader, a writer, and a filmgoer, I would be distraught I had to go out and make sense of these works!''

The program at the Whitney is varied and distinguished. Its earliest work, the 1939 ``Rose Hobart'' by Joseph Cornell, is a fractured version of an ancient Hollywood melodrama, reedited to destroy its original meanings. Such classics as Maya Deren's dreamlike ``Meshes of the Afternoon'' and Sidney Peterson's antic ``The Lead Shoes'' date from the avant-garde movement of the 1940s. Bruce Conner's surrealistic ``A Movie'' was made in 1958; ``Vinyl,'' by Andy Warhol, was shot in 1965; ``Zorns Lemma,'' by Hollis Frampton, dates from 1970; the hilarious ``The Pressures of the Text,'' a video by Peter Rose and Jessie Jane Lewis, premi`ered in 1983. These are only a few of the offerings, which range from minute-long audiotapes to Michael Snow's 4 1/2-hour epic, ``Rameau's Nephew by Diderot (Thanx to Dennis Young) by Wilma Shoen.''

Also slated are hour-long performances by such respected artists as Ken Jacobs, who will screen one of his demanding but brilliantly expressive two-projector film works, and by Stuart Sherman.

Weiss emphasizes the diversity of the show, suggesting that the spectator should ``look at what happens in each work'' and see how this particular type of nonsense ``adds one more threshhold to our perception of sense.'' All the offerings are valuable, he adds, ``for the way they expand, or re-create, or distort - in the best sense - our vision...and our expectations.''

At a time when most film and video seems committed to reinforcing our laziest notions about what art and entertainment ought to be, it's hard to imagine a more useful - or sensible - goal. ``NON%*@#&]SENSE'' will continue through Dec. 9.

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