Critical Curatorial Exhibition

Diane Oh/New University

The spacious gallery room was cool and dimly lit — a stark contrast from the warm Thursday afternoon sunshine outside. What sounded like electricity running through wires blending with a recording of a woman’s voice gave the room an eerie yet mysteriously alluring vibe. A small number of various media of art surrounded me. I was the only visitor in the entire room. I took this as a chance to immerse myself as much as I could into “Chiasmus: Zones of Political and Aesthetic Imagination” of the “Critical Curatorials” series.

Curated by studio art graduate students and as a part of the new concentration in Critical and Curatorial Studies, “Critical Curatorials” at the University Art Gallery features the works of emerging contemporary local and international artists. “Chiasmus” brings together the political and social aspects of modern society with the artistic in that many of these works address social and political issues, but express them in uniquely aesthetic ways.

This exhibit invites the viewer to fully engage with each artwork they encounter. As written on the wall near the gallery entrance, “Chiasmus” “stresses the importance of a rhizomatic conversation between fields of practice in order to imagine different productive relationships between them.” Viewers are challenged to explore and make new connections in the political, social and artistic contexts of these works.

Although there weren’t too many works on display in “Chiasmus,” the thought-provoking presence of each work gave the overall exhibit a striking impact. The various media included seemed to make the exhibit become that much more of a puzzle to piece together.

The first piece to catch my attention was Julia Haft-Candell’s “Orsa,” a tall 3-D sculpture made of materials like fired porcelain, glaze, silk, thread, steel wire and calligraphy paper. Its fibrous, thread-like network colored with hues of blue, red and yellow reminded me of blood vessels and nerves. As cliché as it may sound, I thought of it as re-asserting the essence of being human physically and mentally — the complex intertwining of the threads representative of human nature.

Ragen Moss’s “An Underdetermination (made necessary by the commonness of the debate)” was set up: a row of evenly spaced white hollow boxes attached to the wall. But if one were to view the boxes from the side, each box has a circular window through which viewers can see the steps of the legal and scientific processes involved in obtaining stem cells from a donor.

Once I began to read the note inside the first box, I heard an audio recording of a man singing “Happy Birthday” with a tense, shaky voice, making it sound like a creepy lullaby. This had the effect of making the encounter feel more personal. Forcing the viewer to step in between the boxes to read each step literally brings the viewer face-to-face with the artwork and adds to the strange intimacy this artwork creates. “An Underdetermination” seemed to add a friendly storybook-like tone to a cold, straightforward scientific process regarding a hot topic of debate in the fields of science and politics.

I moved further into the gallery space only to find myself surrounded by plasma TVs playing various digital videos. The first screen I approached was Tom Pnini’s “Sunset Demo,” which showed different sceneries with a sunset. Some scenes were of a beach or mountains in the desert while other shots had urban city settings. I put on the headphones provided and heard the sounds of each scene: the crashing of waves, birds chirping.

The only consistent element was the sunset, which was sometimes an actual sunset or what looked like a bright red balloon in the urban settings. I’ll admit that I’m still wondering about the artist’s intention of this work. However, the combination of visuals and sound makes it easy for the viewer to become absorbed and perhaps to even appreciate the aesthetics of each scene, only to be interrupted when the video abruptly changes to a completely different scene.

Another video I found myself absorbed in was “Chase” (2009-10) by Liz Magic Laser, a 145-minute video of a public performance that shows the artist and a small group of actors interacting with ATMs at multiple Chase and Washington Mutual banks. Not only do the performers do regular tasks at the ATMs, sometimes they also converse or gossip with another actor or other ATM users, sing to the camera while sitting in front of the ATM, or have a “dialogue” with the ATM as if it were a human being. I found this to be an entertaining way to convey that money is so influential in modern society that it might as well be treated like a person.

The artworks in “Chiasmus” express that completely different areas of society overlap and can relate to each other in the most unexpected ways, allowing for new interpretation. The personal experiences from these works give “Chiasmus” its multiplex human quality. Like with people, the more time you spend with the art, the more you gain from it.