Archive for the 'Video Art' Category

Subjunctive

The reader of The Classic of Mountains and Seas plays hopscotch from peak to peak, moving in leaps and bounds roughly according to one of the four cardinal compass directions. On each stop the traveller is given a Rough Guide equivalent of the major points of interest: natural resources, resident deity, flora and fauna. Some of the denizens are rather strange. A familiar creature may be used as reference for point of comparison, but deviations from the expected are dutifully noted: a multiplicity of legs, a single eye, a human face atop a snake’s body.

None are perhaps as strange as the “look-flesh” creature, helpfully described by translator Anne Birrell in the glossary of the Penguin Classic edition, quoting third century commentator Kuo P’u, as “a mass of flesh which looks like the liver of an ox: it has two eyes.” Coming across it again and again in the text, I’ll admit I found it rather hard to visualize hopping about the slopes of its territory. Farther east than the scholars could have imagined (and their imaginations were robust), further even than the country of the Blacktooth people across a vast ocean is a city at the foot of two hills, barely worthy of mention compared to the legendary peaks in the eighteen books. I only bring it up it because it’s here that I think I’ve finally got a glimpse of the “look-flesh,” far from its home.

Liting Liang is only one of the dizzying number of participants in the Chinese Culture Center’s current show Present Tense Biennial. Her ink on paper works immediately brought to mind the descriptions from the book (one of the joys of which is the many interpretations by artists throughout the ages of the creatures within). There is the crouched chimerical woman, lower body sheathed in rows of reptile scales. Another figure stands posed, cleaver in hand, snake wrapped around her neck like an alert scarf (snakes are often described grasped in the hands of deities or clamped between their jaws). Then there’s a curious lump of a thing, kind of like a potato or blowfish with legs, in stockings and heels. Is this the “look-flesh,” dressed to impress for the twenty-first century? It’s probably wishful thinking. Maybe a distant relation? Or is it something never before seen, field notes for an as yet unwritten nineteenth book? At the very least, the impossibilities inherent in her striking work offer a good entrance point for the show as a whole, because it gives me license to call her a favorite among a multitude of favorites in this diverse and absorbing show (a site dedicated to images from the center has proved a broken link in the last few weeks that I’ve tried to visit. But you can get an idea of how amazing her pieces are here:, it’s the first image in the review).

The bulk of the show is less concerned with mythology as a whole as it is with mythologizing, or to be more specific demythologizing. Curator Kevin Chen of Intersection for the Arts, with the aid of Abby Chen and Ellen Oh, have spread the net wide in the selection of contributors: 31 artists, not all of them of Chinese origin or descent. The diversity of the participants has borne fruit in a show with varied approaches and executions. I start with Liting Liang’s work not just because I love her ravenous eater and dismembered legs washed ashore but because the works are so singular. The raison d’être of the show has such a strong psychological pull that it’s easy to forget that Present Tense is not just an exercise in itself. The show offers many reminders that identity is a tricky thing, constantly embattled and contentious, and many of the pieces are meditations on that theme, urging the viewer to revise their assumptions. But the engine that drives that process is the uniqueness of each artist’s vision: they are well worth appreciating each for their own sake.

subjunct1Thomas Chang, for example, explores what’s left of a theme park in Orlando, Florida fallen into disrepair. The miniature monuments captured in C-Prints have a haziness in the details which only serves to draw attention to the haziness behind the enterprise itself. The brain child of the Chinese government, the amusement site was meant to foster interest in tourism with replicas of famous sites in 1/10th scale. A facsimile of Tengwang Pavilion however is now gutted, the front exposed like a doll house and overgrown with weeds. This official “imprimatur” of Chinese culture, made for export and based on sites of historic importance and grandeur, has an interesting counterpart in the export of Americaness in Charlene Tan’s work (more on that in a bit).

Across the room, Imin Yeh’s Good Imports, 2008 presents a laptop completely shrouded in patterned textile. In an online interview, the artist explained that the fabric is typical of that found lining boxes of souvenirs from China. Perhaps it is the usual taboo of “look but don’t touch” but the wrapping evokes a sense of prohibition at the sight of screen and keyboard enveloped, even while the design lends a mystique of value, despite both the material and the hardware being the result of mass production. There is a divide between the reaction to goods which reach our shores somehow imbued with a sense of China as a country of deep history and traditions and cheap consumer products whose cheapness would not be possible were they made State-side.

subjunct2Exploring the source of those imported goods whose provenance is invisible to most consumers, Suzanne Husky recreates a factory floor of tiny workers. As a group they are nearly indistinguishable in their spread armed poses and blue aprons, but the faces are taken from photographs of actual people, giving at least the illusion of individuality. Down on Kearny St., Husky has installed a sister piece in an empty store front that instills the eerie sensation of spying on actual factory workers through the glass doors (see below).

The portraits in Sumi ink by artist Nancy Chan are precisely observed. The sense that Annie is observing you above her clasped hands is palpable. The works were rendered on long sheets of paper calling to mind traditional prints and calligraphy presentation.
subjunct3
I’m watching Fang Lu’s music video Straight Outta HK when I see a familiar face. Alex Yeung is the front man of hardcore band Say Bok Gwai (and a coworker of mine) and the story behind the piece is coaching hip hop artist Kelda in a cover of one of their tunes, the trick being the lyrics are in Cantonese.
subjunct4
Perhaps the most dramatic piece in the show is the cornucopia built of wire and paper, spilling out facsimile cartons of McDonalds packaging. The name of the piece, The Good Life, 2009 reminds us of the associations that accrue to the powerhouse chain’s product, being such a ubiquitous American brand. But a close look at the photocopied boxes reveal the traces of glocalization. These particular boxes have been tailored for the Chinese market, while still retaining the signifiers (like the arched “M” logo) that entice a consumer hungry not just for food but the array of symbolic connotations that go along with it. Charlene Tan’s piece captures many of the absurdities: the ostensibly American meal would be prepared and served by Chinese workers employed by the franchise, and even the most American of offerings on the menu go through a process of vetting to make sure they’re attractive to the palates of the country of that particular outlet. The abundance of empty boxes inside the horn of plenty underscores that our exported idea of “the good life” may not be all it’s cracked up to be. Even the “weave” of the cornucopia is just a photocopied texture.

Fans of painted chopsticks, bundled in groups of a hundred, form Arthur Huang’s demographic study of cities in which he has held residence. My Life as a Chinese American So Far (36 Years and Counting), 2009 breaks down the racial makeup of communities based on census data. Simply looking over the color key (“raw umber” for African Americans, “burnt sienna” for Latino Americans) reveals the quixotic nature of the enterprise. Huang has attempted to match the selected hues with an eye to them reflecting to some degree an approximation of actual skin color. In doing so he underlines the suggestive power of what appears at first glance to be objective statistical data. Even the selection of something as subtle as color coding can have a profound effect on our assumptions whether we are aware of it or not.

Yu Yudong’s One person’s parade series is a good end point for this glimpse of a show that negotiates ideas of shared heritage, tradition and experience even while critical of imposed collective identities. The four protest signs display photographs of the artist, bullhorn pressed to his mouth, sign in hand. In one, he stands in an empty street, midway between a crosswalk, beneath signage indicating that this is the city of Songzhuang, China. In another, he is atop a wall of painted brick, near the building’s corrugated metal roof. The works stand in stark contrast to the work of Hei Han Khiang just a few rooms away that focuses on the Tiananmen Square protests of Spring 1989. Although following the forms of the demonstrator engaged in a group action, Yu Yudong’s “protester” stands alone with an unknown message that goes unheard, at times in locations where his presence is assured to go unnoticed.

The Present Tense show actually continues outside the gallery, with a number of satellite installations located throughout Chinatown on Kearny St., Clay St., Columbus Ave. and Walter U. Lum Place. You can watch video of curator Kevin Chen touring a few of the window displays on this installment of Culture Wire.
subjunctmontage

Tomorrowland

Parting a curtain, a landscape is revealed seen from an incredible height. It’s a city built on water where classical architecture mingles with the most fantastic: sky needles and skyscrapers, a hollow cube that looks like an ode to the toy models of molecular structures. It’s a World Fair built to last, viewed seemingly with approval and a sense of ownership from the man at the window. All this can too be yours is the unspoken pitch from a broker no doubt waiting nearby for the vista to work its magic.
tomorrowland1
The inverse of Wizard of Oz revelation, in the prints from Liu Gang’s Paper Dream (2008) series, what lies behind the curtain, or off in the distance, is betrayed by the surface details which proclaim the artifice. Streaks of light mar the figure of the man at the high window, tell-tale crinkles of the glossy advertisements which form the source material for the prints. A bank of what looks like a rolled up carpet that the man stands astride is a bunched up fold of paper testifying to the essential two-dimensionality of the urban dreamscape.

In other works, rows of gilt edged books redolent of the library of the well-read and well-bred sag as if an unfaithful tack has come loose, exposing them as nothing more than an image painted on a tarp or tapestry. In a print where a jockey poses atop his horse in the foreground, the eye strays toward an impressive array of multi-story buildings of concrete and glass peeking above the tree line. A second glance confirms that the same buildings appear more than once and in the same sequence.

My favorite of the lot was a racetrack receding into the distance, to one side the spectator stands filled with party confetti-colored motes and on the other, a row of wobbly looking apartments. It’s so packed with empty promises that it’s embarrassing how giddy it makes you feel staring at the image. Not only is the future waiting for you if you can close the distance, you’ll be racing toward it as the crowds cheer you on (the expressways in Heaven are all forty lanes across and empty of traffic). The pavement, blown up from the original is a mass of scattered halftone the color of red clay. But although the lines of the road converge at the horizon, we know that parallel lines will never meet. And the towering apartment buildings to your right will pass by lap after lap, always out of reach.
tomorrowland2
Curator David Spalding has paired Paper Dream with Living Elsewhere, (1997-1999) a video projection by Wang Jianwei (together they make up the complete billing of the SF Camerawork show, dubbed Even in Arcadia…). The documentary follows the plight of a group of people in Sichuan Province who have taken up residence in deserted buildings that were or were intended to be upscale housing complexes. Where manicured front yards would have stood, they carve holes in the crumbly dirt in the hopes of bringing forth a subsistence crop. Inside the villas, wall-sized holes are open to the air, convenient for emptying foul water from a pot, but also indicative that they would have required mammoth sheets of window glass to cover the space. Doors propped with bricks form makeshift tables. No narrative is forced upon the residents: the director is content with following them and letting them tell their story, or watching them trying to eke out a living in a setting built for opulence but repurposed by necessity.

Odds and Evens

That tagline up on the header right now pretty much says it all. If it’s not walkable, it’s MUNI for me and sometimes this proves an aggravating experience. Fully caffeinated on a Saturday morning I wander around taking pictures and then settle in at Mariposa and Bryant to get my $45 worth.

Elapsed wait time: 50 minutes

No. of busses that pass by going the opposite direction: 4

No. of other potential passengers who give up: 1, a MUNI driver clearly about to start her shift, who had even less confidence in the service than I did.

Possibility that San Francisco public transportation might prove so enticing that citizens will give up their cars: 0%

When the bus arrives it’s packed to the gills. Armed with the knowledge that the elusive 27 likes to hunt in packs, I wait five more minutes and climb aboard a car with plenty of breathing room.

Waves of shoppers take up every available inch of sidewalk, mistaking an afternoon inferno for “nice weather.” It’s always a relief to give the Market St. crowds the slip by turning the corner onto a deserted street where 49 Geary waits in the relative quiet. It feels like you’re privy to some undisclosed location ignored by maps and directories. I give the secret hand signal to the security guard at the desk and head up to Toomey Tourell. This is what makes it all worth it.
odds1
God damn it.

Too stubborn to give in, I grab some carpet and pout. Now I have to pee, which means begging a gallery attendant or owner for a key. Screw it. I go down the hall to see if there’s anything new at Steven Wolf.

One end of a huge painted landscape of a mountain vista is peeking out of the office, looking like a ship that’s just pulled into port. On the walls are a series of collages by brothers Kent and Kevin Young. The news article clippings give the feeling of free association on the subject of twins. Extracted bit by bit from the surrounding context of whatever was deemed timely and notable that day, they come across as the plunder of an obsessive’s scrapbook. “Is it just us,” ask the conspiracy theorists, “Or do twins hold a peculiar fascination for people?”

In the side gallery a Milton Bradley game is set up at a table. According to the website, this was to provide Bay Area twins the opportunity to try out their ESP aptitude by quizzing one another during the opening reception.
odds2
Kreskin: the original Dungeon Master.

Nearby four monitors tick off the results of a million die rolls, perhaps highlighting the craps game of genetics that every so often comes up “twins.”
odds3
Next time: Toomey better be open. Still need to use restroom.

Friendly Fire

While Giant Robot is wrapping up Game Over / Continue? today, a celebration of gaming’s colorful roots, across town artist Tim Roseborough is casting a more jaundiced eye on the medium’s current state which is walking a tightrope between simulation and coy romanticism.
friendly11
No One Dies In a Make Believe War is Scenius’ inaugural exhibition, having just opened their door on that stretch of Treat St. lined with cell-like business spaces where Iceberger once resided. Opposite the entrance, above the gallery’s desk, an unblinking eye stares back at you. The sharp report of rifle fire attends each cycling of the projections on the wall, mimicking the sensation that your view is that of the zoom lens of a gamer’s sniper scope. Lining the walls to either side are digital images of a desert landscape and a solitary soldier, the latter with that mannequin stiffness of posture which characterized 3D-modeling circa the late Nineties, around the time of the first game in the Half-Life series.

Graphics have improved by leaps and bounds since then, but the boxiness of anatomy and features helps to heighten the contrast to the elements Roseborough has added that don’t normally get rendered into pixelated form. In the first image to the right of the doorway, the soldier supports himself on the ground, body parts jutting out at hard angles, as a pool of blood spills out from his knee. A splotch of red indicates a chest wound looking like a chunk carved out of a plaster wall.

The view of the surrounding landscape, when it is visible in the pieces, bears that starkly utilitarian minimalism of early deathmatch maps, where all that was needed was cover and sniping bungalows. Accordingly, the buildings are simple box shapes stacked one on top of another, with the same repeating texture that could denote worked stone, stucco or the wall of an aluminum shack. Littering the ground in some of the wide shots, the bright crimson against the dull yellow of the sand indicates the scattered remains of a casualty, positioned at the margins to exploit the oblivious gaze made famous in Pieter Brughel the Elder’s Landscape With the Fall of Icarus. In other works the mutilation of war is front and center. Roseborough floats a decapitated head in a circle of blood and presents a fallen grunt whose lower jaw has been blown completely away, the shreds of meat lying nearby.
friendly2
Whereas it may seem like the reality depicted in war games is sanitized due to the squeamishness of developers and the buying public, the truth is that neither are necessarily adverse to gory details. Companies seek to both bring down a game’s rating to maximize the buying audience and avoid it being effectively banned in some countries due to the vagaries of their particular classification system. The result is the bloodless pantomimes in which death means a quick reload or a period of clock-watching before the player can return to the action. Right now fierce debate is playing out on game sites surrounding a planned game from Konami set during one of the most deadly operations of the Iraq War. Interestingly, despite the fact that the media is often accused of inherent bias for not reporting on the grim realities of warfare, G4TV recently interviewed some soldiers who wouldn’t mind a game that better reflects the realities and costs of combat. Says one, “Let it be made, and hopefully it will bolster support for military veterans by giving civilians insight into what this war was actually like for them…”

Vanishing Acts

It’s pretty raucous out on Mission St.: it’s hot and everyone’s soaking it up before the weather turns again. On the fourth floor of 2111 Mission St. though the din is barely audible and I’m watching row after row of books going through a thorough process of erasure.

When I cut through the room initially on my way to the other video projection adjacent to the windows overlooking Mission St., all I noticed at a glance was a static image of bookshelves. vanish1Passing back through the curtain and taking a seat it’s a while before it dawns on me: down in the lower left hand corner, one book at a time, the spines of the volumes are being whited out. It’s a little like watching the whitewashing of graffiti or the painting of a wall but somehow way more absorbing. It delivers that satisfactory sensation of completeness, the promise that each book will get the same treatment as the last in the process.

The shelves are divided into 24 sections meaning there is plenty of time to meditate on the exercise as your eye follows the relentless eradication of color and text. I think of our memories which also go through a steady, barely noticed degradation. Two things that seem to define the progression are its feeling of inevitability and the almost gentle nature of the obliteration. As a viewer there is nothing you can do to stop it and you feel mesmerized by the process itself. Shi Young’s Untitled, 2008 taking just short of 23 minutes to complete appears as part of a cross-gallery exhibition with SFAC called imPOSSIBLE! Aside from the two projections appearing at this location, Mission 17, the work of six other artists is on display at SFAC’s gallery on Van Ness. But I found that Shi Young’s work seemed to mine many of the themes to be found down the hall at a concurrent Mission 17 exhibit called Cantocore.

Cantocore is a shared exhibition between San Francisco and Guangzhou, China, with many of the pieces on display being reconstructions and reconfigurations of predecessors that appeared in the latter city late last year. “The collaboration takes its inspiration and its name,” the website explains ”…from the rapid economic, social, and cultural changes currently taking place in Canton province… Over the last 20 years, cities such as Guangzhou, the capital of Canton, have changed from having a uniquely Chinese culture into global cities influenced and informed by diverse forms of representation.”

Slipping back through the gallery’s entryway, past the elevator and through a narrow hallway where Huang Xiaopeng’s original red and yellow banner has been transcribed in monumental lettering brings you to Mission 17’s second exhibit space on this floor. High on the far wall directly across from the entrance, JD Beltran’s projection of plane footage captured in downtown San Jose sets the tone for the exhibit. Whereas the images are most likely of passenger planes, given the context of the show you can’t help but get the impression of commerce in overdrive as individual aircraft pass over in quick succession. Eventually they twin and diverge, their silence contributing to the allusion of a phenomena invisible to most of us until times of tumult, like the current worldwide economic crisis. Back in Detroit visiting family over the winter, people everywhere were proudly declaring their intentions to boycott goods from China while admitting how difficult a resolution it was proving to keep. Believing you can extricate yourself from a single strand of the tangle of world commerce is more daunting a prospect than it might seem. You may, for example, stick with the resolution to buy American when it comes to automobiles, but as Benjamin Barber points out in his book Jihad vs. McWorld, even if your car is a product of the Big Three, its components most likely have a global provenance (same goes for your home computer).
vanish2
Resisting the urge to approach the large Zen garden that takes pride of place in the center of the room, I check out David O. Johnson’s coffin-like sculpture to the right of the doorway. Made in China, 2008 is an approximation of a large wooden shipping crate shaped according to the contours of the State of California. Brimming over the top are styrofoam peanuts lit from below to give an orange glow redolent of smoldering embers. Shi Young’s projection still on the brain, I’m reminded of one of our most important and enduring imports from China: naturalized American citizens and their descendants. After a lengthy history of resistance to Chinese immigration, Americans relented with the unspoken caveat that acculturation would follow a progression not unlike the whiting out of the spines in the bookcase: an erasure of distinctive signifiers of heritage and tradition many centuries old. And yet, it was more often than not citizens, themselves of an immigrant past, who never ceased emphasizing perceived differences. To this day, smugglers ply routes to the California coast bringing Chinese seeking a new life or victims of the sex slavery trade, for whom a shipping crate may well prove a coffin.
vanish3
Nearby is Wang Ge’s installation: a series of monitors stacked on a shelf of bricks. In both the Guangzhou appearance of this piece and the current one in SF, local material has been used to prop up the television screens. I watched a bit of the video, and the woman working Mission 17’s desk popped in at one point and gave me a little more background on the piece (including cluing me in about the bricks). Wang Ge’s work exhaustively documents the story of Huang Pu Village, a place that is undergoing its own process of slow but deliberate erasure. A victim of the boom in urban development, while younger villagers may seek fortunes in the big city, older members of the community are left behind to watch as family shrines go neglected and more rural ways of living vanish by degrees.

Slow and seemingly inevitable, effects like these on individuals often goes overlooked or underreported, being less dramatic than the immediate aftermath of displacement or distress caused by natural forces or large scale conflict. Lin Fang Suo brings the point home with her video Exploitation where various vegetables with likable cartoon expressions get squashed by slow degrees by plates of glass and sandaled feet.
vanish4
It was just my luck that the piece I was itching to play around with happened to be out of service that day. Misako Inaoka’s Zen Garden, 2009 is an exploration of artificially created replications of natural objects complete with fully motorized fabricated rocks which (when operational) allow the visitor to employ one of two wooden paneled remote controls to create patterns in the sand. A nearby rake stands ready to bring order to the chaos. The playfulness behind the work (“kids love this thing” the gallery attendant observed) adds a nice consensual dimension to the meditations on rapid societal changes wrought by industry that the show examines.
vanish5
If pressure is being exerted due to economic factors, it is because there is a market somewhere or it’s in the process of being created. Especially when it comes to high tech gadgets, material is often dangerous to obtain, dangerous to dispose of, and comes with a high environmental cost in all stages of its life-cycle. Asian countries have often been the answer for companies seeking to sidestep reasonable working conditions and wages, to bear the waste produced through manufacturing and then accept the trash back as import for a fee. It’s a surety that eventually even if what we lose disappears from memory, what remains will become too difficult to ignore.

Music, With Occasional Gun

Lulled into complacency by Christian Marclay’s video Screen Play looping right inside the street entrance I’m totally unprepared upon climbing the steps and entering New Langton Arts’ gallery proper on the second floor. It’s, well, it’s big, and the current show Every Sound You Can Imagine has a scope to easily fill the space. Presenting works that date back to 1974 (a little bit of uncertainty there, other sources seem to state that 1975 was when New Langton went live) the show broadly explores the interplay generated by conceptual collisions of music and the visual arts.
musicgun1
Here’s a sampler of some of the pieces that caught my attention, leaving out so much that I’m afraid only a proper visit will give you some sense of how extensive the exhibit really is (hint, hint).

Always contrary, I attacked the show counter-clockwise rather than the path laid out for me which takes you first down a little cul-de-sac before doubling back to cut behind the front desk. First stop was Fluxus composer Dick Higgins’ Symphony #186 from The Well-Colored Symphony: part of the series A Thousand Symphonies, 1968/1997. 4 pages of orchestral paper are riddled with holes; the holes surrounded by nimbuses of pigmentation. At times they appear variously like clouds or galaxies except where the punctures have practically torn the paper apart (fittingly, these seem to correspond to notation on the score indicating percussion). The effect was achieved by machine gun, as employed by a New Jersey police officer who directed his fire at a paint can which contained the score sheets.

Stephen Vitiello’s approach also shows an inclination toward the element of chance in its composition. Overlaid upon the sheet music of Pond Set 1, 3 and 5 are images of thin reeds in standing water. Where the vertical lines of the stems cross the staff is presumably indicative of the usual presence of clefs and notes. Since so much of the composition relies upon uncertain variables (there is no telling where the vegetation will cross the staff until it is superimposed and the superimposition is the result of any number of accidental decisions like the position of the camera and framing of the plants) Pond Set performs the function of a mandala. Musical composition is a process of molding sound into a pleasing or remarkable sequence. It requires the human element of choice (unless you’re composing with machine gun) yet strives for something organic. There is a certain irony in the amount of work necessary to achieve a melody destined to be deemed “pastoral.”

Already it’s apparent how important the musical staff is to the artists as a conceptual starting point; a familiar structure to riff off of. Yasunao Tone has also seized on the importance of notation’s placement as a kind of trigger point. Anything crossing that horizontal plane at a particular point can constitute a direction for performance, whether conventional sign (F-sharp) or incidental like the lines of elevation in Tone’s Geodesy for Piano, 1962. The starting point is a topographical survey map this time, specifically one produced by USGS/USC & GS of the Thirteenth Lake region of New York, N4330-W7400/15 in 1954. According to the printed handout provided by the gallery “…the intersection of lines on the sheet of acetate with contour lines on the topographical map are used to determine the heights, angles, and positions from which a set of objects is to be thrown from a ladder onto a piano.” I wonder if Tone incorporated any of the names of prominent features in the region into his score? They’re wonderfully evocative: Balm of Gilead, King’s Flow, Kettle Mountain, Lost Creek, Siamese Ponds…

Steve Roden’s When Stars Become Words conjure up the pleasing aesthetics of an H.A. Rey book, yet from a few steps back look like the kinds of interplanetary fantasia that used to adorn the covers of old pulp magazines like Astounding Stories and Amazing Stories. But by the time I reach Douglas Hollis’ work I’m ready to see something that isn’t another improvisation on the musical staff. Thankfully Hollis’ Scored Bridge is narrative, conceptual, elegiac and steeped in memory. He recounts how the idea sprung from a structure from childhood reminiscence dubbed “the Singing Bridge” due to “the humming it made as we drove across its steel grating.” When he discovers that another beloved metal bridge is due to be superseded by a concrete replacement, he devises a score as if sung by the latter in memory of the former, the melody of a structure with no particular music of its own in dirge to another whose song was itself.

Stepping up to Alison Knowles’ offering of strips of onion peel fallen at intervals like leaves on a long strip of vellum I’m already mentally planning my Ode to Nicotine wherein a slow moving sheet will catch spent clusters of ash resulting from long drags on a Marlboro Light. But I imagine it would be better if I leave that endeavor to someone else- I really need to kick the habit.

Hanoi to Hallyu

Embarrassingly, it took a Korean horror film, R-Point, to enlighten me regarding that country’s significant involvement in the Vietnam War. At VAALA’s page introducing Yerba Buena’s exhibit transPOP: Korea Vietnam Remix, you can read the curator’s statement where it is noted that “the Republic of Korea was the second largest foreign military and economic presence in Vietnam behind the United States, with over 300,000 combat forces and approximately 24,000 skilled workers in exchange for substantial U.S. aid.” For someone who sought out just about every domestic film released about the Vietnam War as a kid, I can’t help but wonder about the hows and whys of this rather glaring lacuna.

It’s a bitter irony that throughout history war is often the instigator of cultural exchange. The spoils and stories brought back from campaigns abroad fuel a fascination and mystique of those sites of conflict. To meet the new demand, trade is an inevitability, and what follows is often a delicate negotiation between the promise of economic opportunity and the nascent underlying traumas. transPOP is infused with this blend: the gaudiest stage shows of clean-cut pop bands share space with grainy images of carpet bombings and the flare of ignition from helicopter-mounted missile racks. It’s a diverse ensemble, more than slightly overwhelming in the varied approaches and subject matter on-hand. But you are never more than a few feet away from the reminder of the nexus that formed the present day relationships between Korea, Vietnam and America, whether it is a twisting pathway of camouflage-patterned placemats or the sounds of whirring rotor blades coming from projected news footage. Rather than offering a woefully inadequate attempt at a comprehensive overview, I’ve picked out a few of favorites from the show:
exercises1 Nguyen Mahn Hung’s fighter jets with their incongruous payloads of cereal goods and pig carcasses in Go To Market, 2004. The F-4 Phantoms are contemporaneous with the Vietnam War. The appearance of the later F-18 Hornet suggests the enduring legacy of the co-mingling of commerce and militarism (UPDATE – or not, check out Johnny O’s correct identifications in the comments. Thanks again!). It’s a striking image of the disparity between humble and humbling levels of technology that prompts no end of reflection. Who gets to own which? Who’s in charge and why? How do we get there from here and what will become of us if we do?

Song Sanghee, The National Theater, 2004; video installation. This is right inside the entrance and delayed my venturing into the main space of the gallery for a good long while. A man at a podium begins a speech on the hope for reconciliation between North and South Korea. Suddenly, an assassin appears in the lower corner of the screen and fires shots from a prop gun as someone offscreen attempts to wrestle him to the ground. Although a bodyguard seated near the podium springs from his chair and draws his own gun in retaliation, he is too late: the woman next to him slumps over, the victim of a stray (imaginary) bullet. He freezes in this position for a moment or two, straightens his coat, takes his seat and smooths out his trousers. The other man emerges from behind the podium where he’d taken refuge and the woman resumes her former posture on the folding chair. The speech begins again and the scene plays out once more to its tragic conclusion. The action is not looped: during one run-through, the bodyguard drops his gun by accident, but he still strikes the same pose in tableau, arm outstretched. Specifically, the piece reenacts the attempted assassination of Korean President Park Jung-hee and the accidental slaying of his wife, Yuk Yeong, but in its recurrences of hope and horror can be read the anxiety over the troubled history of efforts of rapprochement between the two halves of a divided nation.

exercises2

The slowly moving clusters of flowers against an identical background, which finally reveal themselves as the camouflage of a creeping figure in Lee Yong-baek’s Angel Soldier, 2005. This is projected onto a gallery wall and it took me a while to even tease out the effloresced fatigues from the backdrop. Soon others emerge, magic eye-style, moving at the same measured pace, crouched in a commando duck walk.

hallyu1

Steaming Out (Post IMF), 2000 also by Lee Yong-baek, is another video projection of perambulating metaphors (image from the YBCA page video). A man in a business suit carrying a canvas laptop bag trudges across the bottom of a swimming pool, bubbles sputtering upward from the regulator in his mouth. As the name suggests, the work is informed by the IMF crisis and its affect on Korean white-collar workers.

The complexity of LIN + LAM’s Unidentified Vietnam (Invisible Like Peace), 2006. In a disorienting inter-cutting of period footage and reenactment, Lana Lin and H. Lan Thao Lam’s video piece introduces a white gloved woman regarding a passage from Graham Greene’s novel The Quiet American: ‘”In a way you could say they died for democracy,” he said. “I wouldn’t know how to translate that into Vietnamese.”‘ The implication that the quote is more telling for what it says about the speaker than for any profundity in his observation is underlined by the frantic interweaving of staged and acquired images.

exercises3

Lying on Facism, 2006 by Min Hwa Choi Chul-Hwa. The delirium induced by the rosy red that suffuses the protesters and the landscape as if their solidarity had been captured by a Tesla aura photograph seems to foreshadow the haze of inevitable clouds of tear gas.

exercises4

Finally, Sandrine Llouquet’s Troi Oi! series of drawings in marker pen and enamel on plexiglass. There was plenty of colorful and playful work on display, like Tiffany Chung’s Marioland-esque hued characters in her Bubble Double Bazooka prints and her weird sea anemone styrofoam stalk Sugarcane-Kumquat Mixed Juice. But Llouquet’s tiny renderings are little worlds of their own that kept me coming back for another look.

The Devil’s Own

I arrive just as Jo Ractliffe’s Vlakplaas, 1999/2000 is finishing up. The audio is a collision of overlapping voice over tracks, so I can only pick up snatches here and there: “a short jerk and that was it,” “no longer say that it was just rumors,” “thank you, no further questions.” The projection on the wall is a long pan of stitched together still photographs: a landscape of bristly plants, deserted paths and fences. Too soon the end card comes up, so I settle in resolved to catch the rest when it comes around again.

The collective eye of SF Camerawork is unflinching. I’ve never been to an exhibit in their space that I won’t be thinking about for the rest of life. There is an unbroken line of sadness that runs through each successive show, yet in each case the artists struggle to transform the harsh truth of their memories and experience. You see it in the staged exorcism of Katsushige Nakahashi’s The Depth of Memory and the demolition squatters of RongRong and imri’s Ruins to Renewal. They never offer just a lament. These are acts of rebuilding, hopefully making the foundations stronger.

Test Patterns: Recent Video From South Africa, one of their current shows, is a presentation of the work of nine filmmakers who tackle the changing face of their nation post-apartheid. I’m here for the first part of the program which runs through the 14th, at which time the five pieces looping in the back gallery will be replaced with ones that’ll be on view until March 25th. Whereas much video art is an exploration of the possibilities inherent in the medium itself, there is a definite skew here toward the need to document, an urgency to record the moment to serve as a barometer of social progress, a snapshot that one can hold up and appraise in light of what has come before. That is not to say that the works are straightforward verité. Each of the artists takes a unique conceptual approach, but collectively it feels like all are taking a sounding, dropping their lines to see how deep the waters are.
devil1
Slyly, Cameraworks places Ruth Sack’s work right at the entrance to the back gallery. Her piece records a staged event from 2005 for Human Rights Day in which a skywriting plane over Cape Town spelled out the words “DOnT PAniC.” While the exercise demonstrated in humiliating fashion the hysteria of a portion of the white populace for all to see, it is also acts as a nice introduction to the exhibit by acting as a release valve for the tension built up in a visitor steeling themselves for what they may expect to be a fairly affective exploration of a country in the midst of transition.

Back to the loop: after Vlakpaas comes Penny Siopsis’ long, languorous tale of displacement and identity My Lovely Day. I’m not knocking it by calling it “languorous:” the included home movies are cut to the reminiscence of her grandmother, relating her successive periods of settling and relocation. It is unhurried, with many asides to remark on the people and places she has known, described in collective terms that make us uncomfortable at times. But the meandering narrative that grows bit by bit, doubling back often forcing the viewer to pay close attention to cues of place and sequence, comes across as if you are there as her grandmother was asked to recollect on the spot her life story. Her “voice” (the tale is told in onscreen titles) is fascinating. Often she sounds defensive, as if she felt the need to justify her life and identity (she especially bristles whenever she recalls others not considering her British, or not British enough).

The accompanying home movies, with their yellowish tinge, many so blurry as to be collections of marching shadows, make you feel as if you have built the images in your mind from her grandmother’s description as she searches her memory. In some of the oldest clips, a white blob has erased the images in the center of the screen, heightening the effect of not being able to see the past with perfect clarity. There are many shots of water: tumbling over rock, pools where children are at play. The happiness of children on camera is often undercut by the grandmother’s observations: that they don’t know true suffering, that they’re allowed to run amok in the name of “expressing themselves.” They live “charmed lives” she observes with contempt, an envy born of a lifetime faced with the reality of massacres, disasters and marginalization. Of the death of a child she advises “associate his death with the trees and the pigs slaughtered at dawn.” As she defines for herself which places are “civilized” or notes that the “people on the island were kind but strangers” we find her attempting to construct a self by contrasting it against others, even when she takes pride that she married a man who was Greek and lived a life far too adventurous for the likes of those she left behind in England. Her experience enriches our apprehension of what at first seem benign images on screen. A clip of a parade is followed by the admission that “marching reminds me of so many terrible things.”

The clips that follow are more bite-sized. Eight to Four, 2001 by Usha Seejarim takes us for a long trip along a highway, the eye following the railing, giving us glimpses of passing signs, a cityscape partially visible through the trees, the antenna shadows of streetlamps and the occasional pedestrian trudging along the shoulder. I learn later from the exhibit booklet that this is the stretch of the M1 South connecting Johannesburg and Lenasia. The latter town was “marked exclusively for Indians during apartheid” meaning the mundane (this could be any highway on Earth) conceals an invisible imposition on the landscape of social demarcations. Like many of the works, there is a contrast between the bitterness of such realities and the presentation. The attention to the shadows of cars racing against the side barriers has a lightness to it like a child running their hands along a fence as they pass by, leaving an impression tactile and with a note of tenderness.

devil2Ranger Circle, 2007 by Simon Gush is a slow pan in snapshots that dissolve into each other of man on a horse in the tall grass that reminded me of the more solid memorials on plinths around the world dedicated to those who generally spent their life running down others on horseback with saber and rifle. Struggles of the Heart, by Churchill Madikida shows the artist’s face in close-up, covered in white paint as he shovels handfuls of gruel into his mouth. At some point it became apparent that the film was playing in reverse, or had it always been? As he slurps the paste, nearly choking, more of it comes leaping into the frame from below into his mouth. His eyes are pressed tightly closed in concentration and perhaps wrinkled in a grin.

We finally come around again to Vlakplaas and I’m struck again at how much foreboding is inherent in the empty landscape of black and white photographs. It is as if we are meant to bear witness more than anything else: the images will not give up their secrets even though the voice over begs us to pay attention. Even though it is hard to make out often what is being said, there is the unmistakable stamp of inquiry: a hearing, or a journalist’s investigatory piece. The answer comes again from the booklet that explains that the location was “the former headquarters of South Africa’s counterinsurgency operations and where more than one thousand anti-apartheid activists were tortured and killed.” The voices are those of the commander of the installation and an official giving testimony to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The booklet also reveals a stunning fact of life under apartheid. The paranoid and oppressive government restricted the use of a television, fearing the subversive effect of exposure to unprocessed, unpropogandized information. And so Test Patterns carries with it, along with a feeling of reclamation of acquired territories of space and spirit, an undercurrent of experimentation and liberation in exploring a medium whose most popular vehicle for delivery was described by the government as “the devil’s own box for disseminating immorality.”

Water, Water Everywhere

After immediately being faked out upon entering by Gallery Counter, 2008 (why are they forcing that poor woman to sit behind that obscenely tall desk?), I learn to take the name of Baer Ridgway Exhibition’s show to heart. It’s not like they didn’t warn me: the title is reproduced countless times in the entryway.
water1
Mads Lynnerup, like most of us, has the recession on his mind. You are the Artist, You Figure it Out is largely an exploration of the things we deem of value, whether objects or concepts, and why such value might be misplaced. As is stated in the voice over of one of the video art pieces, “…if the good times have really ended, they were never really that good to begin with.”
water2
That’s from Squirrels (Recession), 2008 which you can get a little preview of here. My first thought was that the squirrel might be Lynnerup’s stand-in for us at our most acquisitive. In the video they are certainly indefatigable “workers,” and the bowl of peanut shells nearby seems to be suggesting we should recognize the metaphorical implications. There’s a sense of longing in the squirrel posed gazing at the skyline in Squirrel (speculation), 2008, or is it discomfort? Perhaps it’s just the opposite: they’re the ultimate rainy day saver-uppers, a lesson to many who live on credit. In any case, you can ponder the lesson they have to tell from the comfort of the provided burrito couches.
water3
Water, 2005 was my favorite part of the show however. In the video, Lynnerup hauls a water cooler jug to various establishments, all within a few blocks radius of Baer Ridgway. What he’s hoping for is that they’ll let him fill it up with a cup or two of water before moving on. In the course of his journey he hits the Cartoon Art Museum, an EMT training center filled with students practicing resuscitation on mannikins, the GLBT Historical Society and SFMoma (through the employee entrance) as well as posh locations like the W Hotel. The reactions are usually initially ones of bewilderment. It’s hilarious to see the woman at the desk of the Academy of Art Institute trying to relay the intent to a faculty member (“Water!” she yells into her phone). Most are accommodating even if they at first were completely nonplussed. The guys at the firehouse send him off with a friendly wave. Others, like a staff member at the chain restaurant Chipotle is less than enthusiastic. “It’s really weird. I don’t care if you take some water.” Lynnerup takes it all with good grace, balancing the jug’s mouth awkwardly under the soda fountain dispenser.

His long trek does a good job of illuminating the distances between people. Even given an odd request, people were generally willing to accommodate much more than we might suppose. Given that art still carries with it a kind of sacrosanct quality, Lynnerup obviously has an easier time of it (relatively) than just any old person on the street walking in to a place of business. But that seems to be partly the point: that social constructions can form barriers and open doors and yet act at a subconscious level. In the busy South of Market business district, how strong is a feeling of community within spaces largely given over to work and vacated by dusk?

I should add before I go that the people at this gallery were great and seemed genuinely enthusiastic to have a visitor and to hear what they thought about the exhibit. One of them watched Water with me on one of my numerous viewings and pointed out that people at the show’s opening had drank from the water in the jug (now ensconced in the gallery next to the television on its base). Given the exhortation at the beginning of the show that if I “see anything interesting” I should “let someone know immediately” I direct your attention to Baer Ridgway on Minna St.

My Feet and Yours, Walking Together

“At one point you’ll enter the staff stairwell. If the alarms go off, ignore them.” This from the woman setting me up with my video camera and headset to experience Janet Cardiff’s contribution to The Art of Participation: 1950 to Now at SFMOMA, The Telephone Call. She was absolutely thrilled that I asked about it, since it was after 5 p.m. on a Thursday and I was her first participant. That’s not the only reason of course. Once you’ve tried it you’ll be an instant convert and want to tell everyone you know about it.

Armed with your gear, you’ll head to your starting point: the benches adjacent to the main stairway on the first floor. myfeet14Hit play, and suddenly you’re navigating between two worlds, as Cardiff’s voice over directs your attention while the view finder shows you another walk through the museum, now juxtaposed against your surroundings. The space around you seems filled with ghosts, revealed only to you through the video. People glide by, invisible to the other visitors and you notice details like artwork that has changed or been removed. There is a disorienting feeling as you match your movements to hers, and the strange sense that you’re inhabiting someone else’s body: that you should recognize the people she singles out, that you should remember relationships hinted at. You begin to rely on her cues so much that at one point when the screen goes black, it’s as if Cardiff has abandoned you and there is something like a feeling of betrayal.

Please, please go try this. I’m eternally grateful to the Engineer’s Daughter herself for tipping me off to this (perhaps it will inspire you too to name your cat after the artist. What, don’t believe me?). For some interesting details about the genesis of the work, check out this video in the Multimedia section of SFMOMA’s site.



Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.