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. Passing 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).
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.
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.
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.
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.