Did I Miss Something?

Posted on Sunday October 02, 2011

Gallery exhibition openings aren’t just a chance to dress up, skip school and get a free feed and glass of cheap wine. There’s also the chance to be entertained and illuminated. Or bemused. Or bored.

Recent openings at two of UMass’s galleries spanned the lot. The undergrad exhibition at the Student Union Gallery showed some works that could be expected – a ‘room’ with several arrays of personal, apparently devotional objects, whose meaning was probably clearer to the author than to the viewer; several pieces of text on the walls (in one case, literally) that might be interesting but as such works require a literal reading as well as a visual one, and are usually longer rather than shorter, it’s hard to stay the distance – and some that were less expected. One student’s piece, combining a painted background with a video projection (yes, it included text, but minimally) was engaging, even mysterious.

The other opening was at the university’s main gallery, the University Museum of Contemporary Art (UMCA), showing some video works by South Korean (or is that, International?) artist, Kim Soonja. Nothing marked the distinction between the two exhibitions and the artists so well as the food. At the Student Union Gallery, it was (already-sagging) cookies and pour-yourself-one-from-the-bottle juice. At UMCA, a long, well-laid table offered a rich variety of tidbits: mixed olives, sushi, various meats, crisp fresh vegetables, cheeses. The bar was staffed, with bottled wine available. Most importantly, the bottles had labels. I show my origins.

Downstairs, in the exhibition rooms, Kim Soonja’s videos played on the walls. In most, the artist presented her back to the viewer and faced a tide of people moving along a street – in Turkey, India, Japan, elsewhere on the globe, but not in South Korea – going about their business, supposedly unaware of the camera. The artist stood or sat, perfectly immobile, moreso than the best of the ‘human statues’ I’ve ever seen at Circular Quay or in Salamanca Place. And without any gold or silver paint, just her uniform jacket.

In the videos people stopped, stared, came up to her, clearly bemused. Except the New Yorkers. They moved past her, apparently unseeing. Or else they recognized it for what it seemed to be, a performance piece. They see plenty of those I guess, and all sorts of other weirdness.

The artist’s statement on the gallery’s entrance wall intimated that she was investigating various facets of performance through immobility that “inverts the artist as the predominant actor”. I could not see this. I saw the artist very much as an actor in her own works – always present, always still-ly acting as if she was ‘being present’ (in the Buddhist, meditative sense) but simultaneously on show for both the works’ steet-strolling participants and the viewer, and therefore, not truly ‘present’.

I was always aware that the camera was also, always present, standing just where I was. In this show, an unfortunately-placed digital projector enabled me to insert my own shadow into one of the works (artist as beggar), and, voila, I too was immobile and present – at least, my shadow was. Perhaps I too, was ‘investigating performance’. Or being a (sm)artarse.

Viewer As Artist: Shadow self, inserted in the video projection

The exhibition’s opening ceremony began well, with the director’s lively, warm and sufficiently-brief welcome and the South Korean consul’s equal response. (Thank you, ma’am and sir.) Then things went skew-wiff.  The artist and moderator began a conversation. Between themselves. There was talk of needles and thread, of wrapping, of women’s work, of becoming a beggar and I think, of the artist’s desire to come face-to-face with every person in the world. We are here now ma’am. This is your chance.

I think I was meant to be in awe of the exchange between artist and moderator. Then a thought struck: perhaps this is a performance piece, and no-one’s told me. Yes, it’s a demonstration of the artist’s concerns about alienation and exclusion. No, they seem to be serious. At this point, I left the building. I think Elvis came too.

So, one of you who stayed the distance, please tell me: did I miss something?