On the face of it, Mariana Tres' Celestial Clockwork isn't much to look at. Upon further investigation, it also isn't much to think about, despite a tedious trail of conceptual breadcrumbs the artist has sprinkled for viewers to follow. The exhibition consists of eight photographic prints showing the innards of clocks and wristwatches. These prints are uninventively composed and have a dull finish.
In the Chambers@916 Gallery's center stands a glass-covered pedestal filled with old turnkeys, diagrams, a magnifying glass, a weathered bow tie and other banal bric-a-brac. The show looks like a high-school science-fair project. As it turns out, however, Tres has fabricated an elaborate backstory for these amateurish efforts, detailed in antiquarian script on one of the walls. She posits that in 1867, an Astoria-based scientist named Herschel McShougle hatched a plot to construct a clock that would accurately keep time for 10,000 years. The fictional McShougle's idea allegedly predated actual efforts currently under way to build a 10,000-year clock by the Long Now Foundation (longnow.org). A promotional film about Long Now plays in Chambers' video-installation space.
McShougle is among several characters Tres has created within the faux archive she calls "the Society for Nebulous Knowledge." In the past, she has exhibited fake memorabilia of "19th century astronomer" Anabella Gaposchk and "19th century Russian composer" Viviana Spokoininich as part of a contemporary-art phenomenon known as "fictive art." This genre, presumably, blurs lines between reality and duplicity in an era when historical accuracy is often suspect. It would be a worthy aim in an exhibition that were not so deadly dull. As it is, the backstory vainly pads an essentially flabby show using tropes that are hardly original.
Publishers and Hollywood reimagine history all the time, as in the recent book and film Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. The 1800s are particularly ripe for postmodern picking, with their blend of industrial progress and Phileas Fogg/proto-steampunk windbaggery. But in any century, conceit is no substitute for content. And in January 2013, Celestial Clockwork is a resounding, pretentious dud.
SEE IT: Celestial Clockwork is at Chambers@916 Gallery, 916 NW Flanders St., 227-9398. Through Feb. 2.