Where the Crayfish Winter

While the fruits of my college Russian courses have mostly frittered away from disuse, there are still enough remnants that make me unrepentant of the three and a half year ordeal. The idioms in particular have really stuck with me, even if they are hardly the type of thing I can just drop into everyday conversation. In our third year course, we were directed to pick up a thick volume filled with them (even bigger than the book of Russian profanities that we scooped up whenever they became available at the informal marketplace events). We were to memorize a set number of them each week at which point they completely fell off the radar. Never were they referred to again in either classroom discussions or in the essay quizzes. Feeling that this was a wasted opportunity, I proceeded unbidden to drop them into every dialogue with teacher and classmates and practically littered my speech with them during the Wednesday “Chai” practice meet-ups. It was much more fun than stuttering out “I like to go to the beach on Sundays” to respond “Grandmother hasn’t said yet” or “Aha! Here’s where the dog is buried!” Surprisingly, it was my teacher who always seemed the most caught off guard. Even though she was born and raised in the former Soviet Union, there seemed to be a total disconnect between what she expected from a foreign speaker and the literal meaning of what I was uttering. We made mistakes so often, to hilarious and embarrassing effect, that no doubt she believed at first that I had just mispronounced a noun. For a second or two she would be silent, and then she would smile forgivingly.

Aside from the very apparent benefits that learning a foreign language can provide, it’s this initial confusion where your brain is faced with making sense of the seemingly inexplicable, looking at something as if a ram at a newly built gate as the idiom goes, that seems to have a salubrious effect all its own. Perhaps it has something to do with the way we process information: in our initial appraisal, many different possibilities have to be entertained before understanding is achieved. There is a kind of euphoria in that, as much as there is also an accompanying feeling of annoyance as you struggle to define the incongruity between what is known and the elusive nature of a new word, phrase or image.

Code-Switchers which closed last week at the Lab was an exploration of this nowhere land between the understood and the indeterminate that “investigate(d) a variety of approaches to cultural and material bilingualisms, (mis)translations, appropriations, and the purposeful misuse of ‘proper communication’ codes.” While it may be impossible to cook kasha with somebody, this juried show benefited greatly from the varied and singular approaches of the many contributing artists (my write up of this visit is posting late, so you’ll have to do a little code-switching of your own as we depart from past tense and time travel back to my immediate impressions).

Front and center in the gallery’s main space is Terry Berlier’s Threesome Chair which strikes a nice immediate tone for the exhibit with its obvious absurdity. If an icon was needed to represent the show as a whole, these siamese triplets set on a wobbly looking stand of appropriated gym floor would be a logical (or suitably illogical) choice.

Nearby are a series of photographs and a map of particular interest to me because I remember noting this site specific work when it appeared but had no idea of its provenance. When I used to walk to work I’d pass the old Wonderbread factory on Bryant, just north of 16th street. As I turned onto Alameda every morning I’d meander around the workers having their morning smoke or grabbing a quick bite from the parked lunch wagon. One morning I discovered that the representation of a tall tree had appeared on the Bryant St. sidewalk. It stretched out to full length like a ghostly shadow of one of the telephone or power line poles that lined the street, rendered in what looked like white spray paint. Anyone passing would slow down to ponder it for a few minutes before continuing on their way. Many times I’d find workmen standing around puzzling out its presence together over their coffee. It turns out that its the work of Tim Armstrong and the title of the piece Tree Memorial offers some clues as to what he had in mind. Three years ago the Wonderbread factory closed rendering all the workers jobless. I passed the site on the way to Somarts later that afternoon and it’s now just another quiet nondescript stretch of San Francisco landscape, the evidence of the tree, like the employees, gone as if a cow had licked them clean with its tongue.

All the way over on the other side of the gallery is Lauren DiCioccio’s tongue twistingly titled work W SEP08: pg 536-7 (don’t confuse her breezy frocks & crusade for safer hair care with flakiness). Displayed are the open pages of a book, but instead of the “text” being rendered in Times New Roman or Garamond, the mylar surface is dotted with colored spots. Rendered with uniform care, but still showing the minute irregularities of hand painting, they seem to suggest a code waiting to be deciphered. Little details, like dots that are conjoined, reminding one for instance of the Anglo-Saxon letter “ash,” indicate to the budding linguist that all that is needed is a chromatic Rosetta Stone and the sense will be revealed. Without climbing into someone else’s sleigh, it’s still possible to admire the work for its aesthetic qualities alone, just as one might adore the look and arch of Arabic script or Sanskrit.

Adjacent to W SEP08… is 21 AUG08 (Lebron James), a piece of mixed media that transforms a page of newspaper into something that straddles the line between a tribute and a hideous reworking of the original photograph. Muslin has been wrapped around the paper and DiCioccio has painstakingly embroidered the underlying figure of the basketball player. The excess thread has been left to dangle off the portrait giving the disconcerting appearance of exposed veins. This is quite possibly my favorite piece at the exhibit, and a good exemplar of the show’s theme, dancing from the stove as it does before the hand of the artist crafts it into something vaguely terrifying and beautiful all at once.

Finally, I spent quite a bit of time at 14 Days (All your fear just turns into relief). Klea McKenna’s submission is actually a chronicle of a period of time when she had to care for her mother. Rather than seeking out easy comforts during this experience, she took on the difficult challenge of learning to read and write braille. The accompanying photographs are like tone poems that convey through objects and disembodied body parts scenes from a larger story that is written only in McKenna’s experience. Printed on the bottom of the artist’s explanation of the piece are the words “PLEASE TOUCH THE BRAILLE” in bold letters. Each of the prints is topped with text rendered in upraised braille, which adds a physical aspect to the work since to this visitor the very present but still unreachable meaning would have to remain untranslated. Somehow the act of being able to interact in a tactile way with the assembled elements highlights the inherent emotional drama of the artist’s story. Perhaps it is because one of the first impulses we have when we wish to soothe someone is to touch them: to stroke their hair or place a reassuring hand on their shoulder.

It will be interesting to hear exactly who comes out on top considering this is a juried show. I didn’t even touch on the many other works on display that include an elaborate archaeological and anthropological exploration of a rumored blond ape-like creature dubbed “Daughter of Kong” and a series of videos capturing therapy sessions conducted as one-on-one wrestling matches. Being forced to pick one among them would be tough. Expect a determination from me when the crayfish whistles.

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