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Mad Homes on Bellevue Avenue

July.27.2011

As the parnoramic view of South Lake Union unfolds, change is evident. Construction and destruction take place in the foreground as the Mercer Street exit gets re-routed. Vulcan Construction is everywhere. From this height, South Lake Union appears to be sliding further into Westlake, assimilated by the Borg that is downtown corporate expansion. But in the midst of a neighborhood unrecognizable even 15 years ago, there stands a monument forever remembering the spirit of a young Seattle: the Space Needle. It marks a young city happy to embrace the World’s Fair, happy to look towards the future. For all its space-ageyness, the Space Needle authentically preserves a Seattle of old, smack in the middle of a very new Seattle.

The Naked City, a book by Sharon Zukin, is a discussion of phenomenon much like that of South Lake Union, except in New York. Zukin’s ultimate concern is with the expansion of middle-class gentrification, which overtakes authentic neighborhoods to replace them with an identity-less corporate sameness. While she admits some neighborhoods weather gentrification well—Williamsburg in Brooklyn, for instance, changes from a working-class ethnic neighborhood to a haven for hip young professionals and artists, at least retaining a sense of particular local culture—she is concerned that unique local cultures are being sacrificed for the more profitable corporate homogony of the upper and middle-class.

In Seattle, enter Mad Homes.

Mad Homes is an exhibition spanning four houses on a Capital Hill block that are due for demolition and development into condos. Once the occupants were (mostly) gone, the Mad Art team transformed the block into a series of art installations. Massive holes were cut in floors, walls and ceilings. Latex was applied. Houses were wrapped in saran wrap. What’s left is a whimsical series of art.  The pieces act as the last hurrah for these houses before they are turned to firewood and replaced by condos that mirror the complex next door.

A piece like Ties That Bind from trio SuttonBeresCuller, which weaves thick red ratchet straps through two houses, reminds the viewer of the closeness of a community leaving. It’s profoundly fun, as maneuvering the upstairs of 715 feels like moving through lasers as if you were in the “training” scenes of Ocean’s 11. But Ties That Bind is more: it’s a physical manifestation of the links that communities create between people. In this sense, considering the coming redevelopment, the piece attempts to remember a community that is now gone.

Also remembering the identity of a neighborhood in flux is Laura Ward’s Skin at 711. Ward covered the home’s exterior in latex, peeling off the resulting film later, leaving a complete replica of the home. She set up her replica on the home’s front lawn, using a wire skeleton to give it shape. Skin is quite literally the skin of the house, much like the shed skin of a snake. The latex is surprisingly detailed, too, as even the chips in exterior paint are visible in her reconstruction. Sadly, while Ward’s piece provides record of the house about to die, it isn’t permanent either. Only in Mad Homes’ second week, Skin already has many large holes, signs of significant decay.

Luke Haines’ [Installation #1] Wall Clothes is a series of rooms in the house at 723, where walls are covered with clothing purchased from the Goodwill.  The result is surprisingly powerful. Both times I went in those rooms, I couldn’t escape an intense stress, a tightness in my chest. My mother (who I brought along) cried in this room.  Wall Clothes felt like a dying home’s final effigy to the family that once inhabited it. There are shirts commemorating favorite teams, summer camps, and family activities. There are baby clothes and clothes for the morbidly obese—clothes that all mark the events of a life. And while the viewer can’t experience those highs and lows along with the family, the habitants of the house, we see possible remnants. We are privileged to see the way a family lived.

The viewer, though, is forced to abuse the privilege. There is no other way to experience the piece but to walk on the clothes. This dilemma forces the viewer to become a part of the art, stepping into the space and encroaching on the family. Clothes hold a special and, ultimately, intimate place in our lives. They touch us, we stew them in our sweat, we sprinkle them in vomit after we’ve had too many drinks. The experience of Wall Clothes, then, is like trampling on that intimacy. There is a strong sense of abuse. That intimacy, though abused, makes the piece feel like a sort of wake for the house, as it goes down in mere weeks. It is a wake for the family.

Therein lies the problem with all these pieces: Mad Homes only acts as eulogy for those houses, simply preserving them only for a moment more. Like Vulcan has completely changed the South Lake Union neighborhood that is visible from the last house, development will radically alter that block. Instead of the flair those four old houses offered, there will be expansion of sameness for a greater profit. Even worse, sooner or later, people will forget those houses existed and will the block will blend into the rest of condo-fied Bellevue Avenue.

There’s sadness there. The intrusion, for instance, felt in Wall Clothes would not be so stressful if there were still people living in the space. It would be more celebratory, then. Not to be overlooked, there is a strong sense of playful, happy celebration in Mad Homes. The families are gone, though, and the houses will soon be, too. The celebrating may be joyous, but it is still a celebration for the end of an era.

So what Mad Homes leaves us with isn’t necessarily something lasting like the Space Needle or other permanent art which act as an opportunity to preserve the culture of a neighborhood, fighting the factions of unrelenting sameness. No, what Mad Homes represents is a memorial service to those houses and to the loss of a little neighborhood flavor. Mad Homes remembers, one last time, the functions of those homes and how they integrated in the community. Once the houses are torn down and the condos are in, those homes will be of the past and, like the art, eventually forgotten. A neighborhood will be changed.

Mad Homes is showing at 711 Bellevue Avenue on Capital Hill, through August 7th. The homes are open from 12-7 daily. Admission is free. The only parking is local street parking, which is very limited. The houses are at the northernmost stop of the Metro 14 bus, running regularly through downtown. For a tasty dessert, the Capital Hill Top Pot Doughnuts is a block and a half to the southeast.

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Review Short: Undercover Holidays at Gallery4Culture

July.25.2011

There is something profound about a depiction of baseball that features all women. It’s not that women playing baseball is wrong. In fact, I have utmost respect for female baseballers. It’s that, as anybody who played baseball past junior high knows, a baseball dugout is the incarnation of every disgusting feminist critique of the male species. Sexism. Objectification of women. Homophobia. Fecal matter jokes. A baseball team is a boys club in the most traditional and, judging by the average level of maturity, most literal sense.

So, upon viewing Undercover Holidays, a piece on baseball featuring all women, things felt off to me-the-baseball-player. In the most male of male bastions, not only were all the players women (one woman playing several, actually: the artist Keeara Rhoades), but they were in highheeled Converses, dresses, and other sorts of femininely wrapped fabric. This just exposed, though, what the uber-male culture of baseball tries to cover up—baseball players wear tight pants, slap each others asses, and partake in movements that, when done properly, are often more artful than purely aggressive. Taken out of context, many baseball players would probably call their own actions “pretty gay.”

Each actor of Undercover Holidays is supposed to represent a different personality functioning within the game that is a family. Instead, maybe this should give baseball players past and future (like myself) a second look at their team’s dynamics. The game of Undercover Holidays flows more smoothly and artfully than the fire pit that is the average dugout, where tempers regularly devolve into fights. Perhaps if baseball players use this piece as an opportunity to reflect on the hyper-masculine dynamic of a baseball club, they will find their norm as shallow and ineffective as it actually is.

Quirky, more relaxed clubhouses, like the San Francisco Giants’, appear to fare better than more traditional ones. Once a team moves past the ridiculousness of their constant pissing contests, they can concentrate on the baseball, enjoying the game’s eccentricities along the way. Apparently it just takes a woman, Rhoades through her piece’s own eccentricity, to reveal it.

Undercover Holidays runs at Gallery4Culture (in 4Culture’s office) through July 29. Hours are 8:30a-5p, Monday-Friday. The gallery is free to view. The 4Culture office is on Prefontaine and Yesler downtown (essentially 3rd and Yesler) and is accessible by the Pioneer Square Bus Tunnel.

The Talent Show at Henry Art Gallery

July.15.2011

When “the Real World” first premiered on MTV in 1992, Baudrillard must have thought he was in the midst of a wet dream.  Not only did a media source show a hyper-controlled reality drama and claim to be showing real interaction (even though it somehow seemed scripted), but it made the audacious claim to be the “real world.” Real life was transcended for a new, more exciting real, but a reality that lacked normal relations between people, all while creating celebrity for people supposedly being themselves. In that spirit, The Talent Show at UW’s Henry Art Gallery displays the natural result of the Real World’s experiment, picking up after Baudrillard’s splooge finally gets wiped off the sheets, the moment where the opportunity to live the real life of reality TV became a luxury extended to everyone.

Shizuka Yokomizo’s Stranger series exposes the space of this new fame. In 1999, she dropped messages in random mailboxes across London and Tokyo, informing residents that Yokomizo would visit their home at a listed date and hour to take a picture looking into the living room window. The selections were completely random and many chose to reject the offer by closing the specified curtains. But in the case of some, Yokomizo was able to see through the perceived borders of the home and enter each subject’s personal, private space, thereby opening those subjects to the public space of the street and the public space of the art world. Her camera simply captured the moment. In the photograph included in The Talent Show, we see a women posing through her window at the exact time Yokomizo specified, the stranger “number 6.” At this point, this anonymous woman is no longer completely anonymous to the viewer in the gallery, as she becomes an object of viewership, her private living room turned into a public space.

Examining public space from the other side, the first two pieces upon entering the gallery are My Way 1 and My Way 2, by Amie Slegel. These two video series explore internet fame, the close cousin of reality TV fame, from the performers perspective. While the actors of reality TV know that they dwell in a public and social space, the experience of the internet star gives the illusion privacy. My Way 1 shows mostly teenage girls singing along to the song “Gotta Go My Own Way” from one of those shitty High School Musical things (why does YouTube always circulate only bad songs?).  These girls, like the men in My Way 2 who sing along to Frank Sinatra’s “My Way,” had no idea that they would be in an art work, nor, we can safely imagine, that they anticipated anyone outside a friend or two seeing their video. They behave as one does in the privacy of their own bedroom. But like the audience of Risky Business watching Tom Cruise rock out with everything but his cock out, the viewer of these pieces ends up secretly viewing several people’s private experience, seeing their private space safely from the public space of the internet.

The central piece (both physically and conceptually) of the exhibition is Hannah Wilkes’s Intra-Venus Videotapes, a set of 16 televisions each playing a different two-hour loop chronicling her struggle with lymphoma. The emotions experienced viewing this piece are diverse: disgust at the horrors of death and disease, excitement through a sort of pain fetish, and, perhaps most importantly, empathy to the struggles of this fellow human. But the problem with the empathy of the piece is that there is no actual human, person-to-person connection, as the viewer doesn’t know Hannah personally. Instead, the viewer’s empathy is a product not necessarily of personal feelings about losing Hannah and the pain she endured, but a product of the natural “packaged” reaction that we’ve been trained to experience through a media-based culture. It’s a simulation of empathy, the watered-down feeling society has designated as appropriate for the experience of death at a human-to-human level.

This non-real experience is exactly the problem for the viewer of Intra-Venus Videotapes: while hard to watch, it is ultimately entertaining. The viewer gets a concentrated human experience, a spectacle hard to turn away from. The real experience of Hannah Wilkes is reduced to a reality television program—once transferred to a television, the suffering becomes something almost sexual, as the viewer is not a friend or loved-one, but a voyeur to Wilkes’s final days and hours.

The media pieces of The Talent Show then show the perversity of the space of new media. This newly produced space creates the simulation of privacy within a distinctly social space, a space where the fourth wall becomes a one-way mirror—the artist, the participant, is given the illusion of privacy as they act out scenes in the privacy of their own homes. But, in reality, their actions are the subject of a distant viewer’s gaze. Each piece in the exhibition creates or features a subject that acts as the viewer’s performer, performing the isolated, yet self-indulgent equivalent of a postmodern striptease.

Just like a teenager caught masturbating by his parents, these performers are not performers by exhibitionism, but performers by accident.  They each are ignorant of the simulation of private space, as they perform their private acts in their perceived private home but also in the public space of culture. They are inadvertent porn stars, revealing their most intimate and private moments to a world that can only consider them through the medium for which there are received. So while Baudrillard must have found sick pleasure in the premier of “The Real World,” the subjects of The Talent Show are the ones left with the philosopher and the show’s consequences—new fame, whether desired or not, gives the illusion of a private space in a public one.

The Talent Show runs at the Henry Art Gallery on the campus of the University of Washington through August 21st. The Gallery is on 15th at 41st. Admission is a $10 suggested donation and is free for students with ID. Hours are 11-4 Wednesday-Sunday, with extended hours on Thursday and Friday. Henry Art Gallery is accessible by any bus to the U District.

Another Failure of Language at Nko’s Apartment

July.8.2011
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Five years ago my father suffered a massive brain injury. We were lucky and he made a full recovery from his ruptured brain aneurysm, but it was a slow process that spanned several months. Even to this day, the Neuro ICU at Harborview Medical Center is scarred in mind after enduring seven nights at my father’s bedside through his worst. I always avoid Harborview with the cushion of a few blocks to spare.

Three years after my father, Seattle artist Nko had a similarly serious brain injury, falling off his bicycle sans helmet (he broke his clavicle, another point of sympathy with me as I start my own slow recovery) in June 2010.

On the surface, his latest exhibit, Another Total Failure of Language, is a series of paintings marking his struggle to regain the ability to speak and write during his recovery from brain injury. The show largely features smaller pieces, each done on a piece of dumpster cardboard which he covered in gold leaf, then spray-painted with white. Finally, Nko covered each piece of cardboard in text that was mostly gibberish and nonsense. The paintings were concentrated in the living room of the apartment that housed his recovery, where they were hung salon-style. There were a few more paintings in the kitchen and a couple others scattered about various nooks of the apartment.

At this level, there really isn’t anything extraordinary or revelatory about the individual pieces of the show. Covering trash in gold leaf and painting over them is no surprise from Nko and has been done before.  The texts themselves might have even bordered on cliché.

But while each individual painting was uninspiring, the experience of the show was. Viewing the show was, first of all, a privilege, as a personal email to Nko was required to get into it (the show was in a functioning apartment complex). Upon entry, though, the viewer was put into Nko’s experience of brain injury recovery, his version of my Harborview. In this sense, going to Another Failure of Language was less like visiting an art show than it was like going to a museum, a museum of recovery. In his museum, the viewer saw Nko’s artifacts of recovery on display, both the art on the walls and the functional aspects of living, like vegan cookbooks on a kitchen shelf or his very neatly made bed.

The real value, then, of Another Failure of Language was not in the living room or the three paintings in the kitchen—it was the apartment itself, the place that housed the ritual that was Nko’s recovery. Apartment 309 gave a glimpse of Nko’s life as he recovered. Only amplifying the sentiment was being greeted at the door by his mom yelling inside, “Nicholas, there are people here to see you.” The apartment and its contents were what remained behind when his ceremony of recovery was finished, further advanced when he moved out of the apartment a week after I viewed the show.

In fact, the only things missing from his apartment were the actual ritual and ceremony of recovery itself.  We met the final product of that ritual, as Nko personally welcomed visitors to his home, but the visitors missed his struggles firsthand. In that way, Another Failure of Language engages in a bizarre sort of nostalgia—the show tries to recreate an event, but like a museum we are left to view the artifacts that are left behind after the ritual is done. That’s certainly not to say that those artifacts aren’t powerful, because they are. The emotion is just like the goose bumps I get walking by Harborview. And unless you have lived through his recovery, the feeling isn’t quite the same, only the shell of a horrific experience.

The artifacts around his apartment take us back to the ritual, give us an impression of the ritual, manifests the feelings that the ritual might have inspired. But no matter how well preserved the artifacts are, we were never a part of his ritual. Instead, like a museum, the artifacts remind us of a different time. And for those of us who have experienced brain injury either first or second hand, the show puts us back in our own moment—a negative nostalgia for a moment that, thank God, has passed.

Another Failure of Language is NO LONGER HANGING. It hung at the Dover Apartments, at 6th and Marion Downtown.