Critical Views of our Cultural Terrain
by Marya Summers
What could be more relevant just before the 2004 general election than an exhibit that makes us question American culture and its politics? For one month only,
Palm Beach Institute of Contemporary
Art offers American Landscape: Discordant Views, a video exhibit which addresses the effects of consumerism and capitalist-driven political agendas on our culture. In its 14 installations, the exhibit presents an outwardly appealing but intrinsically toxic nation; the discord here lies not between the artists themselves but between them and American society. And while the views presented are all critical, they are not identical, nor are they entirely bleak.
Some "landscapes" are mesmerizing like the swirling whirlies on
One Mile per Minute, which takes us through product-laden, TV-hypnotized, culture jammed suburbia. Bobby Abate’s video opens with a song whose lyrics assure "I'll be right here waiting for you" before it segues into the theme music of
Titanic, whose heroine swore to her beloved "I'll never let go." The songs extend the embrace of the corporate media to catch us as we fall--though they are the ones, the video suggests, that pushed us. Soon, like the famous ship, the viewer will be plunging as the world speeds by sideways, the projected images running down the screen. This is one of many visual metaphors that artist Bobby Abate uses to suggest our culture is plummeting in the pursuit of--ironically--an improved lifestyle.
Some find the beauty in their view. To seek “answers or revenge” on displays of consumerism, Roger Beebe created three city symphonies which combine the visual with experimental city-noise music. Here in The Strip Mall Trilogy, he finds beauty in abstraction during one of the symphony’s movements. Similarly, Jessica Bronson's
five-lobed and propagating, displayed on a flat screen TV, becomes a lovely painting-in-motion as vividly colored petals morph in a kaleidoscopic wonderland of pinks, purples, and yellows. Despite its beauty, the image takes on sinister implications when presented along side the other works of art that critique contemporary American culture. The images' surreal quality recalls the tie-dye and psychedelia of an era, like our own, where its people struggled for equality and opposed an unjust war.
Some views are so obscured by signage and advertising that these become the terrain of the landscapes. For example,
Ad Vice is Tony Cokes' 7-minute conglomeration of fast moving images and commercial and pop culture slogans, which tell us how to improve our lives. As on television, many of these are repeated so we don't miss the message, but we are encouraged to "Enjoy the repetition." And just as some of the letters within the advertisements are flipped in the wrong direction, so is the advice: "If you are dazed and confused," the screen flashes. Then it offers, "I have a roof.” Next frame: "you can jump off."
Also among the works, the chilling Super-max—a tour from a car window of
more than a dozen American high security prisons—addresses the injustices of a capitalistic corrections system and the human rights that it violates. Using a documentary approach with promotional video elements such as dramatic musical tracks, the video takes on an eerie quality. Such creative approaches to topical subjects have garnered Jim Finn’s videos acclaim and appearances on PBS and BBC.
During the journey through some serious territory, humor may be found, particularly for fans of irony. For instance, Les LeVeque uses commercials to take a jab at the pharmaceutical industry in pulse
pharma phantasm, a strobed, headache-inducing piece which—ironically—switches its images between those of pain and relief.
In total, the videos in American Landscapes have earned some national and international respect, as evidenced by screenings at film festivals such as Sundance, Humboldt International, Rotterdam International, and Cinemaker Super 8 International and prestigious museums exhibitions like the Whitney Biennial.
The PBICA’s Calendar of Events says the exhibit "explores implications of a changing United States through the images of an enduring American landscape in its broadest sense--culturally, historically, and socially" (PBICA's October Calendar of Events). But an exploration suggests some discovery. In Norman Cowie’s
Scenes from an endless war, a 32-minute experimental documentary, he presents this question posed by the Israeli government: "How do we know that they'll only find facts and not reach conclusions?" (the Israeli response when asked to allow a fact-finding mission into their treatment of Palestinian refugees.)
The quote applies here as well: to say that these works merely "explore" is to neglect their findings. Through October 31st, museum-goers are permitted to witness the artists’ findings and arrive at their own conclusions.
At the Norton Museum of Art, West Palm Beach:
Opening October 16: Masterworks of Chinese Painting drawing on the collections of world-renowned Chinese Art historian James Cahill, Professor Emeritus who acquired Chinese paintings for the UC Berkeley Museum and his own family collections. The exhibition includes some 60 paintings in all the traditional Chinese formats—hanging scrolls, fan paintings, hand scrolls, and album leaves—dating from the 12th to the 20th century.
Opening October 23: Continental Drift featuring installations by four leading international contemporary artists, Joan Jonas, Ilya & Emilia Kabakov, Juan Muñoz, and Yinka Shonibare. The exhibition is an exploration of the effect of global thinking—how it has imbued and entranced the art world, with artists transporting their life experiences across great distances. In this spirit, the exhibition has an international span as the featured artists are of four different nationalities: American, Russian, Spanish, and British respectively.
On the horizon: Palm Beach Poetry Festival with readings and workshops by national poet laureate Billy Collins and renowned poets Sharon Olds, Thomas Lux, and Patricia Smith. January 21-23, 2005.
Contact PalmBeachPoeFest@aol.com for more details.