Archive for the 'Found Object' Category


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.
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.
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.


No matter the season, when I was a kid and my family took a trip to Frankenmuth, Michigan, we always made a stop at Bronner’s, where it’s Christmas all year round. Straight on through the doorway and veering slightly to the immediate right brought you to a show floor full of decorated Christmas trees, towering to the ceiling. As I remember them they were largely of the aluminum variety, in every off-color imaginable: magentas and silver, greens that corresponded to nothing in nature. Even the icicles of tinsel were gaudy to my young eyes (tinsel being verboten in my household because it was considered overkill by my parents’ sensibilities). I was eager to move on as soon as possible to find another unlikely character figurine to add to an already crowded nativity scene (the choices seemed without limit: there were water carriers, bread makers, musicians and even an elephant).

The vivid memory of that indoor forest came rushing back upon entering Yerba Buena’s exhibition of Nick Cave’s Soundsuit creations, many of which reach altitudinous heights. If there was any sign of my jaded childhood self amongst the visitors, I missed it: the kids in the gallery seemed absolutely agog at Cave’s wild creations, which are fitted to mannequins standing on platforms, set in an a nearly intersecting X-formation, in the center of the room.
The costumes of Meet Me at the Center of the Earth show influence of the ceremonial garb of many world cultures, but they also display a keen eye for taking the most unpretentious and even (dare I say) vulgar of articles and constructing something beautiful from them. After all, here are the baskets that began appearing like clockwork every Christmas when my grandmother succumbed to a beaded plastic phase, the ones my sister and I would hide behind any bit of decorative screen available before guests arrived. I wish she was visiting now so I could point them out and she could shoot me a triumphant look of confirmation.

Attached like barnacles are potholders and knitted caps, God’s Eyes and plastic blossoms. Stretched over the shape of a polar bear frame are Aran Sweaters. One suit sports metal perches for porcelain birds, giving the appearance of a wearable candelabra. A tall polka-dotted feather duster looks ready to spring from the platform, an over-sized moldy bag of mobile Wonder Bread waiting to be set loose on an unsuspecting public. Like a fungal forest, another is covered with jutting brightly colored toys: tops and noise makers and rattles.
Eventually, a line of shaggy pom-poms come into the room as the day’s performance gets under way. The dancers are wearing costumes less elaborate than those on display but which allow them more freedom of movement. Their rustling procession seems to bring a hush of calm to we visitors a bit blissed out by the visual overload of the exhibit. What starts as the quiet percussion of brush on drums eventually becomes a loud and well choreographed group dance after the performers snake their way back into the side gallery near the stairs. I was a bit disappointed at first that I didn’t get to find out what, say, the sound of a suit-clad stroller with an abacus face mask sounds like. But the recital eventually won me over, even crammed as we were in that tight space. It was also rather humbling to find a profusion of cringe-inducing signifiers of my childhood, the lost articles of hundreds of flea market trips, making a star appearance, as if to say, this is what we were waiting for all along.

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).
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.

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.
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.

Made To Order

The projector seemed to be working. The fan was definitely whirring but no light was coming from the lens. In any case, I had seen the picture on Gallery Paule Anglim’s website and read some articles online about Lynn Hershman Leeson’s Found Objects, so I knew how it was supposed to come together. A reclining sex doll, partly draped by a sheet, cobbled together from parts individually selected by the artist and ordered by mail, upon which the foreground figure from Manet’s Olympia is projected. Ultimately it didn’t matter, because if there is one message that is unavoidable here, it is that I am the projector.
The choice of Manet’s work of course reminds the viewer that that painting was a response to another, Titian’s Venus of Urbino. Goddess was succeeded by prostitute, one idealized image replaced another (yet the successor was considered so “real” as to be shocking to its contemporary audience). Leeson’s piece, incorporating and commenting upon its predecessors, is a series of fictions layered one on top of another. The Frankenstein-like assemblage of pieces, the acquisition of which would normally be according to the purchaser’s specifications of personal sexual fantasy, underscores the strain put on the term “representation” when applied to something that never was. The projector is the element that I think really makes the work strong: the literalization of an invisible process.

It is easy to cry alarm whenever such issues seem writ large because of some new technological development. Women have been idealized in pin-ups and pulp magazine covers, comic books and album covers and their depictions emphasize the features that the artist finds most alluring, no matter how unlikely. But perhaps new technologies, simply by virtue of their newness, make one contemplate their implications more readily, even if the elements and issues have been around forever in analog form. So I left Found Objects with my head whirling with thoughts about CGI, with the creation of likenesses which have no real world counterparts. The character Aki Ross from the film Final Fantasy came to mind, as well as every new iteration of Lara Croft from the Tomb Raider video game series, much ado made of the latter when in a recent release the developers decreased her virtual breast size. Terms like “facial capture” and “motion capture” begin to take on a sinister undertone, when considered in light of the care that Leeson has gone to in emphasizing the selection of body parts as individual objects removed from association with a whole.

made2The digital prints that accompany the installation depict the doll being crated up for transport, blanketed by a sheet of protective plastic. Leeson has positioned it in each case to fullest effect. It is disturbing how the unchanging expression, depending on the camera angle and context, can suggest alarm in one case while in another it appears to be indignant and voicing an objection. In Found Object: Wrapped, 2008 the plastic becomes a burial shroud, the eyes cadaverous.

A Heap, a Little Heap, the Impossible Heap

Appropriate to the season, the Upper Gallery at CCA feels almost haunted. The place is deserted, dark but full of noise. The chug of the film projectors in the back, irrupting aural emanations from looping videos that sound like the opening and closing of doors, as well as a pair of speakers, one of which whispers while the other rejoins with a long “Shhh…,” has me constantly turning my head to see who might be behind me. Perhaps the ghosts of former works of art linger about the place. The Exhibition Formerly Known as Passengers after all is a show in a continual loop of expansion and contraction. Starting with twelve initial artists, one by one they move to occupy the space in the center of the gallery, their contribution growing to fill it. After a month’s time, their “solo show” in the central cube ends, and their work vanishes to be replaced by another’s.

Just as you step into the gallery you encounter Kristen Morgin’s Captain America. The wall signage is helpful here, because what looks like Found Art is actually an elaborate bit of artifice. Morgin “uses a mixture of clay, cement, and glue applied over armatures of wood and wire to create true-to-scale objects that appear to be in a late stage of decomposition.” So what appears a ’50s era relic: a rusted metal child’s pedal or push car is in actuality a mimic masquerading the evidence of decay. There is something about castoffs and dilapidated structures that is appealing to Americans. Perhaps it’s the result of our planned obsolescence mentality: our sense of renewal built into replacing rather than building upon the past. Our garbage is quickly hustled out of sight and to discover remnants is to face a version of ourselves we thought buried. So there is a nostalgia to the derelict gas station, a sadness in an abandoned child’s toy. The accompanying plaque suggests that the car “conjur(es) up a post-apocalyptic vision…” and to some extent I suppose that’s true. It certainly could have been used as set dressing in Terminator’s flash back scenes or in the wasteland of The Road Warrior. I think though that the fact that it is carefully constructed to seem a victim of entropy is an indicator that our industrial, throw away mindset is itself a relic of another time. The fruit may be already rotting on the vine.

Kirsten Pieroroth’s Untitled (2007) is an expression of her interest in “the corruption of everyday items” and you’d be hard pressed to identify it without a little help from the materials list. A pile of bristly hair and crumbly shards of sawdust are what remain of a broom after a pretty thorough attempt to destroy it utterly. Again I’m reminded of the fact that few items even reach the point where they are rendered unusable before they are discarded. There are probably plenty of whole brooms buried under mountains of earth fermenting in coffee grounds. The pronounced nature of the broom’s destruction suggests a kind of vindictiveness to the act, which in turn reminds me of Tsukumo-gami. According to Shintō belief, even the artificial can be possessed of a spirit, and the Tsukumo-gami are the Japanese ghosts of discarded items or those that have been particularly mistreated. Traditionally it was the practice to yearly partake in a kind of exorcism of any bad spirits that may have developed in household utensils. Recently though I’ve noticed a number of films that cast a jaundiced eye on the way humanity cavalierly creates and casts aside, in both the victimized Tsukumo-gami of the children’s film The Great Yokai War and the abused “dolls” of Ghost in the Shell: Innocence.

Nearby, suspended from the ceiling is Abraham Cruzvillegas’ Autoconstrucción: Spatial Development Perspective (2008). A bulbous mass of buoys hangs in a tightly packed mass, as if drawn together by gravity to form the rough shape of a bumpy globe. Spheres and cylinders crowd for room, each bearing little hints of their former life. There are dodge ball-sized floats, others the size of medicine balls. Some are tubular bits of hard plastic, ridged or encased in netting as well as a series of joined styrofoam rings. Most bear traces of faded paint worn away by their service at sea as well the stains of algae blooms. One is so excessively scored that one wonders what tempest-torn waters it once bobbed about in. On another dozens of barnacles still cling to its surface. I found inscriptions like “IND. PLAST. CASTRO PESCAFLOT SPAIN,” Korean characters and the cryptic indicator “CF 2093” scrawled in permanent magic marker . While there are any number of associations that can be drawn from a work assembled of buoys, in the end I for some reason felt a resistance to reading too much into the possible symbolism. Buoys of course mark the safe limits of a territory. As flotation devices, they can prevent you from perishing in an environment that attracts us despite its inherent danger. I eventually discarded such analysis and enjoyed it as a purely aesthetic object: something beautiful despite being a conglomeration of disparately sized and shaped items. The piece reminded me a bit of a bunch of grapes or perhaps something Arcimboldo would have dreamed up had he gone in for something a bit more abstract.

I spent a bit of time looking at a work by Claire Fontaine, but not nearly as much time as I spent reading up on “her.” You see, Fontaine is actually the persona of two women who took the name from a popular French brand of school notebooks. Possibly more. It took a bit of reading to sort out: a collective of two people and assistants that refer to themselves as “her:” a woman of the age of four since the collaboration was founded in 2004. There are several exhibits here, one displaying concealed box cutter blades in American quarters and another an elaborate demonstration of lock picking. I honed in on Equivalent VIII (2007) an homage to a piece by Carl Andre from the ’60s. A stack of books are arranged in a rectangle on the floor. Actually, each “book” is comprised of a cover (I believe they’re Editions Flammarion publications) wrapped around a brick. Fontaine’s work, it reads in the signage, “responds to a feeling of political impotency in contemporary culture and is motivated by the history of radical protest, particularly the Paris student uprisings of May 1968.” The works selected are chosen “texts of radical literature.” I was a little surprised by the selection. Sigmund Freud? Walter Benjamin? Alexis de Tocqueville? I had never really considered any of them as radicals. But then again it wasn’t that long ago that authors like Alfred Kinsey, Freidrich Nietzsche and Ralph Nader were called out as agents provocateurs (and hey, look Freud did make the list).

Elimination Round

Somehow I got it into my head that the Nina Katchadourian exhibit I was off to see at the Catharine Clark Gallery was her work involving mending broken spider webs. The idea was so precious that I was chomping at the bit for a chance to view and write about this little bit of Nature Home Makeover. I even came up with all these cool “spider” titles for the post. I arrive fashionably ten years late for that one, but A Fugitive, Some Maps, Cute Animals and a Shark. carries on many of the themes of attitudes paternal, maternal and patronizing in our underestimation of a Biosphere we regard, if at all, in fragments.

First a stop into the dimly lit lounge where a TV and two chairs have been set up for viewing The Recovery Channels. Flipping through the selection with the remote reveals station after station of low brow and “improving” fare alike. Also porn: lots of porn. A Discovery Channel Bug in the lower right hand corner of the screen has been altered to bear the Recovery Channel logo as well as the station identifier. Most of it is still pretty watchable, despite the occasional stutter and vertical striping in image quality or squealing jump of pitch, especially considering what the source material has been through. According to the gallery binder, Katchadourian salvaged it all by combing the streets of New York, recovering samples “…hanging in ribbons from trees, wrapped around lamp posts or fire escapes, tangled in car tires, on traffic islands, and so on.” That’s right, not discarded video cassettes, just strands of derelict tape. A detailed list is provided documenting each discovery with the care of the avid bird watcher or ethologist: “(Channel) 15 – Driggs and N. 8th Street, Brooklyn 04/12/99.”

On to Mystic Shark, a video art piece looping in the hallway. Using petrified shark teeth she purchased at the Mystic Seaport gift shop, Katchadourian records her experiment of trying them on for size (as a side note, I visited the Mystic Seaport when I was a kid during a long summer road trip through New England. I still have fond memories of being the only one permitted into the kid’s playroom. One after another I brought the handmade toys up to my sister standing behind the gate, not because I was feeling especially empathetic, but merely to demonstrate that the youngest child always wins and to show her what she was missing out on). The artist’s brow creased in concentration, she dutifully attempts to tuck each one of the teeth between lip and gum. Once she has managed to fit them all in she directs her gaze to the camera and strikes an appropriately shark-like attitude. Or at least she tries. Despite the totems, it comes off more as a kind of dozy menace and almost as if acquiescing to some urging from the prosthetics, her jaw slackens, her brows unknit and her eyes widen in an endearing way. The use of totems stretches back to our prehistory, visible in cave paintings, and has continued unbroken, if less ritualized, to the current day. Shark tooth necklaces are coastal gift shop staples. I thought Mystic Shark was a particularly interesting exploration of our desire to somehow borrow the attributes of wildlife because it not only acknowledges the impulse in a playful way but demonstrates the strange projections we place upon other creatures. After all, teeth don’t bob precariously between an animal’s lips (assuming it had any), nor does a shark have any particular expression whether it’s attacking or swimming aimlessly about. There is a weird kind of itemizing of an animal’s features that we infuse imaginatively piece by piece to be divvied up, acquired and worn like clothing. A woman dressed as a cat for Halloween feels no need to cover up her own ears when she dons a set of cat ears. Someone wearing a shark costume might very well place the distinctive dorsal fin on his head, unworried that it lacks a projecting fin spine or that it is a poor approximation of where it should appear on his body. The look Katchadourian gives the camera in the final moments of the video could be trying to convey any number of things: “I feel ridiculous” or “a real shark can’t really make a face” or “does my changing of expression change your impression of a shark?” or “are you thinking of a person or a shark?” or maybe even just “sorry.”

A few feet away is The Continuum of Cute, a long series of photographs that stretches almost the entire length of the gallery wall. Each picture is devoted to a particular example of an animal species and the selections run the gamut from microscopic insects to the cuddliest of mammals. As one travels from left to right it becomes apparent that you are witnessing a progression from, shall we say, the less appealing creatures of the Blue Planet to FAO Schwartz bread winners, the superstars of adorable. Starting with the flayed open mouth of some kind of lampreyish horror, you continue along past lice, tapeworms, flatworms, angler fish, naked mole rats. They are all part of Life’s rich pageant but total creepy losers in the beauty pageant of Kingdom Animalia. If you’re upset that you were never notified about polling places for the preliminary rounds be assured that the contestants all went through a vetting process of sorts. You’ve seen these animals before, and I don’t just mean representatives of the ones who made the wall: I mean these exact images. Katchadourian collected her sample from the Internet and many of them will be startlingly familiar from virals that racked up the hits and made the rounds on the Web at one time or another in the past. Once you’ve gotten over the strange realization of how quickly an image can become part of our shared experience comes the fun of quibbling over the artist’s judgement. With the passion of a viewer who has stumbled upon the Westminster Dog Show while flipping channels I size up the results. I’m surprised that the possum gets higher billing than a cow or killer whale, but I suppose the point is arguable. But a parrot cuter than a porpoise? No way. As we near the furthest extreme it becomes apparent that a white coat seems to offer some kind of advantage. I recognize the baby seal photograph from somewhere, shot so that only the puffball head is visible, as if its cuteness was so dense that it created a singularity that sucked the remainder of its anatomy out of sight leaving a single point of ultimate lovability.

Konrad Lorenz is credited with drawing attention to the fact that we are attracted to juvenilized features like bigger heads in proportion to the body, big eyes and button noses and that while this tendency no doubt developed to ensure that we’d care for our own young, we appreciate these same qualities in infant progeny of other animals as well. But it was Stephen J. Gould’s essay A Biological Homage to Mickey Mouse collected in the book Six Little Piggies that really lit a fire in my brain when I was younger. Partly it is an exploration of neotony in human development, that is, the very distinct probability that in our evolutionary progress the human species has retained juvenile characteristics and a prolonged period of immaturity through natural selection. But it is the detailed study of the development of Mickey Mouse, a kind of paleontology of ink, paper and celluloid, that opened by eyes to the way that pedomorphosis (that aforementioned retention of juvenile traits in adults) is exploited artistically and commercially. In Japan, the principles of kawaii fueled the success of the Sanrio line of products and are an obvious influence on anime character design which in turn has been explored in the work of Takashi Murakami. Ultimately though the “cuteness factor” has a profound effect on our relationships with the natural world. As our oceans fill with dead zones, we’ll no doubt save an orca or two because they’re just so damn adorable. Domesticated dogs are the living legacy of our unwitting favoritism for baby-like features which were molded to further conform during centuries of breeding.

Before leaving I looked over Geographic Pathologies. Katchadourian has taken the maps of continents and islands and sliced them in half retaining one portion. She then joined the reserved piece up with a duplicate of the same area to create new imaginary territories. South America ends up as a kind of amoeboid mass. North and Central America take on the character of a doppler radar image you see on the news whenever they’re tracking a hurricane’s movement and projected course. I should probably mention that this kind of relationship between the two halves of the form is known as rotational symmetry. It’s close to one of the necessary progenitors to the development of cute: left/right mirror alignment known as bilateral symmetry which is a characteristic of a face. Symmetry of all kinds is usually pleasing to the eye, which explains to some extent the fascination of these new regions, Indiaaidni and Japannapaj, as well as why protozoa are still checking their mail for an invitation to participate in Katchadourian’s Continuum.

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