Archive for the 'Installation' 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.


I’m looking for the entrance to the basement of Triple Base to check out Elyse Mallouk’s Trickle-down: Yours for the Mining when the gallery attendant emerges from the back room and points out a little hatchway inside the front window.
A perilous looking hatchway. A neck-breaking descent. With disclaimer.
That’s what’s been missing in the exhibits I’ve been attending: the element of danger.
Downstairs, a single light dangles inches from the ground in the center of the basement. In the corners of the room, placed at angles at varying heights are several reflecting panels. Projectors affixed to the ceiling display images of animated diamonds whose reflections crawl along the surfaces of the walls and floor. One of the mirrors was displaced somehow, so the man positions it back into its niche before disappearing into the back room.
It’s frankly pretty beautiful, and the slightly cartoonish rendering of the faceted gemstones only adds to the sly presentation. They’re items endowed with an almost mystical appeal, the power of what they represent seemingly more real than the objects themselves. In the dark with the swirling shapes dancing around you, you could imagine yourself in a cave full of the genuine article. The inability to take hold of them has a strong symbolic resonance. Well worth your time to take a trip down this particular rabbit hole.

The Long Now

There is a kind of comfort in the solidity of sculpture. Traditionally, source materials were chosen with their relative imperishability in mind. Enduring in the midst of change, sculpture as a medium was employed to represent the most ephemeral of attributes. It’s no accident that oft times the term “sculpture” and “monument” can be used synonymously to refer to the same object. More durable than memory, yet built to remind. And just as a sculpture can fix time for us physically, it can serve to freeze any number of qualities we admire that are subject to eventual eradication: youth, beauty, strength. While appreciating Venus rendered, we can regard her with an Ozymandian smirk.

Encountering James Sansing’s Unified Theory at Mark Wolfe Contemporary Art, I found my admiration for the installation grow by degrees as I walked through the space. Facing the doorway is a flat plane suspended from the ceiling. Layers of cement and fabric peel off its surface, exposing the mesh of wire beneath. Draperies connect it with a box affixed to the ceiling and one on the floor.
I’m distracted by stacked cubes near the window. Their forms are slightly depressed as if they were filled with air and subsequently deflated. Turning around again I find that what I had thought was just a suspended canvas is in fact an enormous block, all its faces exhibiting the same traces of manufactured decay. By slow degrees the connections between the pieces grow in significance. Closer inspection of the ceiling reveals that it is studded with many cubes of various sizes aside from the one cobwebbed to the block near the entrance. Some are so small as to be easily missed. A few dangle from thin wires.
Rather than personifying any particular characteristic, Unified Theory seems like an abstraction capturing something more elusive. The most concrete image that came to mind was that of a cave system: dripping water building up to form elaborate shapes out of the calcite residue, but the act of building nearly imperceptible without a conceptual handle on vast stretches of time outside of our direct experience. But I was also reminded of Miro’s The Birth of the World. Neither are a representation of any particular event but symbolize using their own vocabularies a process, or the concept of becoming. The individual elements of Sansing’s work give the impression that you are watching the development of both growth and decay simultaneously. While classical works esteem human traits by denying their fleeting nature, Unified Theory is a view of the continuum, stretching out in either direction.

Boundary Testing

Entering from the fat end of tunnel, I stare down its length to view the projected image: branching straw-colored fibers revolving in the unhurried fashion of a carousel. They’re not quite recognizable, but neither are they unfamiliar. They remind me of dendrites splitting off from a neuron, partly because the resolution has about it that cloudy/sharp dichotomy and uniform coloring (or lack thereof) I associate with electron microscope images.
It is in fact the digital model of a plant, although you’d be excused for not identifying it as such straight away. Pae White, with the help of an animator and visual effects artist, scanned the original and then proceeded to tweak the image and set it in motion. As it pirhouettes, the limbs fold in upon one another, collapsing and expanding in kaleidoscope fashion. Inside the trapezoidal structure installed within New Langton Arts’ second floor gallery space the glass walls reflect the forking growths tumbling and morphing. Recognition plays a part in In Between the Outside-In, but perhaps only in so far as to intimate that what we thought we knew isn’t as matter-of-fact as we’d like to believe, or that there are ways of knowing that have yet to be exhausted.

As you can imagine, White’s mixed-media work is really an experience more than it is a work. You need to get inside the Willy Wonka-esque edifice yourself to fully appreciate the artist’s ability to make the mundane appear so alien. Elsewhere in the gallery, projected against a wall, is another example of the fruits of White’s experimentation, this one appearing like languid tendrils of smoke. Patience is required for the works to achieve their full effect, but that probably won’t be a problem: only the most phlegmatic of individuals, coming up the stairs and turning their head wouldn’t be drawn into the weird organic psychedelic constructions.


Rie Kawakami made my day on Saturday. When I arrived at the Lab to see her installation Living Cube three women were already there chatting in the front of the gallery. Before them was a room full of twisted shapes of various sizes, looking like the detritus of a thousand discarded clothes hangers. Many conformed to a roughly boxy outline, so that at least one side could still lay flat on the ground, but a few were a compact tangle compressed to the size of a basketball.

I was eager to walk around in the space, but they had headed into the gallery to snap some pictures, so I tried my best to stay out of the way. I had the vague suspicion that one of them might be the artist herself by that point, but typically I felt too shy to enquire so I decided to make the most of the opportunity I’d been given.

When faced with a roomful of art that, yes, you can touch, there is the moment where you stand there tentatively realizing you’re on the brink of breaking a taboo deeply ingrained. I think I read the posted print outs two or three times anyway (which really need to more pointed about what you can do rather than only mentioning what you shouldn’t) just to have some way to justify myself in the imagined eventuality that someone leapt out of the office space demanding that I explain myself.

impress1I started off with the hazy idea that I’d like to leave the arrangement different than the way I found it, so I grab a lot of lonely looking tangles lining the periphery and relocate them to the front of the room or around the pillars. I try balancing some of the smaller pieces on top of others with varying degrees of success. Pretty soon I’m creating pathways through them by butting them up against one another and shutting others off by making it impossible to get through without removing the roadblocks. There’s nothing quite so tantalizing, I thought, like finding some semblance of order: all the better for the next visitor to muck it up.

Completely absorbed, I’m holding one of the deformed parallelograms when one of the women, wearing a neat looking suit and dress skirt, approaches me and introduces herself. She is indeed the artist and she expresses how pleased she is that I’m participating in her work. Right off the bat I thank her for making sculpture that people can touch and manipulate. “When they started out they were all like that,” she says, pointing at the pristine cubes suspended from ceiling, the only hands-off part of the exhibit. She derived a great deal of satisfaction on opening night as visitors eagerly got to work mangling them into their present state.

I realize that I had never considered deforming them further. I’m so used to visiting exhibits and accepting that what I was looking at was the end product that it never occurred to me. She is called back to the two women accompanying her and I continued to arrange things to my liking before changing my mind when new opportunities present themselves. Deep down I think we all still have buried in us those dormant impulses to engage with objects in space abstractly, just as a child lacking a toy car will impose her imagination onto a plastic horse to serve, or a group of kids by collective agreement will a cardboard box to become a space ship.

Now that I’ve arranged a group to ring a spindly tower like campers settled around a bonfire, she returns to ask if she can snap a few pictures of me moving the cubes around (heh, heh, okay). I explain afterward my reticence to change their shapes still more. At this point many of them appear to be characters, people or animals, and the thought of bending them up feels like wringing a bird’s neck. She nods and explains some of the ideas she is exploring relate to a life force that could be applied to living and non-living objects. She hit on the wire frames as a vehicle for this exercise since they are malleable and retain the evidence of manipulation by participants. Just as a child can create a race track in miniature in a sand box, the elements within the room can represent any number of relationships within systems, an entire city or a forest.

I mention that to me it’s a reminder that even things that seem static, like a building, change over time. She brings up that life force again: buildings weathering, moving through time, floors capturing slowly over time the impressions of a thousand footsteps, exterior signage scraped away imperceptibly by the wind. I mention how dripping water will bore through stone, given enough centuries.

She is called away again and I shake her hand as she and her companions head out. I’ve never had the opportunity to talk to an artist about their work on-site and it was a true thrill. I feel especially grateful to her since it was clear she was on a time table. Check out her website to get an idea of some of the ways she has tackled her interest in capturing and exploiting visually signatures of life in previous works like Landscape WIll II, 2004 and Two in Blank, 2006.

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.

Tube-Ride of the Valkyries

You could do worse than spend your lunch break like I did at a surf shack, complete with faux fireplace, 8-tracks at the ready and plenty of reading material. As part of the Museum of Craft and Folk Art’s current exhibition Inside/Outside: Artist Environments, Mike Shine has replicated his Bolinas original (pictured) inside the gallery space.
If the cedar tones overlaid with waves of ’60s era poster art typeface don’t put you at ease immediately, the insistence of the museum attendants that “pretty much everything in there is there for you to touch” should get you in the right frame of mind for your visit. A string of lighted Easter Island heads in primary colors stretch along an exterior punctuated with painted buoys of antlered ladies, portraits of welcoming dire wolves and rings of runic script.

I decided Kiss’ Alive II was the soundtrack needed for my visit, so I popped it into the fat orange spherical deck and proceeded to check out all the wild decorations. The “Til’ Valhalla” Brunhilde-type flasher bares all with a swing of her shuttered arms, while Aegir delivers his surf report on a spinning wheel that keeps his braided beard twitching. If you feel a twinge of guilt from indulging in the “Spin and Sin” (determination: “Sexus”) you can follow it up with the nearby “Repent-O-Rama” (“Exergitatio?”). There are paints and pens at the table, but my efforts were less than rewarding so I dug around in the bookshelves. As to be expected, the Germanic writers are well represented (lots of Hesse and a few Nietzsche) but there’s great little time wasters like Marvel Comic’s Fantastic Firsts hiding in there as well.

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