Departure from The Point of Departure

As I’m getting settled in on the other side of the planet, I’ve had a little time to upload some documentation of my ongoing (through Dec. 5!) show at True Color Museum in Suzhou.

First, in case you missed it, here’s the original press release and various placards and annotations. See also my original treatment and mockup.

The show got a lot of good notice in the press. Check out Tom Mangione’s feature in the Global Times on my residency at True Color and recent work, Jake Newby’s near eulogy that kind of made me cry a little bit, and these fond farewells in SmartShanghai and Shanghaiist.

I’ve also got a bunch of pictures from the show, the opening party, and my residency up on Flickr.

And I’ve got some video of the main installation itself up here, but be warned that a video clip doesn’t do justice to the scale and spaciousness of the final work.

Self-Portrait, Dusk, at the Point of Departure (live footage) from Ben Houge on Vimeo.

It’s my largest installation to date, and to a greater extent than any previous piece, it relies on a large space for its full effect, so the experience of watching a small, single channel video can’t describe the impact of the piece on-site. When you’re there in the very reverberant room, you’re enveloped by resonant sound. The screens are spaced out such that you can’t easily take them all in at once. You have to kind of unhinge your eyes a bit, so that you’re not looking at the image on any particular screen so much as the relationships and changes across screens; this multiplicity is an integral aspect of the piece. In addition to the technical breakthroughs (at least for me), which included a real-time color correction system and a scheme for networked troubleshooting and balancing, this piece marks a milestone in my use of video as a sculptural element in a larger composition, rather than serving as the totality of the canvas itself.

Most of my pieces are of an experimental nature (“What is the nature of an experimental action? It is simply an action the outcome of which is not foreseen.” –John Cage), which means they necessarily evolve quite a bit from original idea to final outcome. What’s striking to me about this piece is how close it turned out to my original conception, below.

Self-Portrait, Dusk, at the Point of Departure from Ben Houge on Vimeo.

In the process of escorting the piece from concept to final installation, some additional ideas and associations emerged. One is the format of the piece, originally intended to evoke the banks of departure monitors at an airport, but which of course also evokes a bank of security monitors, all somewhat unsettlingly trained on the same subject. Feeling the piece in its final form, I was really struck at how much it really creates a portal to another space, like there’s a magical wormhole connecting southern Suzhou and suburban St. Paul. A visiting artist friend also pointed out that the tree branches standing in stark silhouette cannot help but evoke traditional Chinese ink painting in a city with a history like Suzhou’s, where the many gardens are full of literati in training, sketching away.

The exhibition’s opening event went great. Basically, I invited all the musicians I wanted to hear one last time before leaving the country (Yao Dajuin 姚大钧 performing his rich, slowly cresting Dream Reverberations; Wang Changcun 王长存, with a masterful set of algorithmic counterpoint; and Xu Cheng 徐程, exploring modulating oscillators), and they all played exceptional sets. The same day, there was an opening at the I. M. Pei-designed Suzhou Museum of works on loan from the San Diego Museum of Art (a fine show I had a chance to check out a few days later; John Sennhauser’s Syncrophormic #18-Horizontal Duo blew me away!), but the museum chairman Chen Hanxing 陈翰星 said that the turnout at our show was better!

It’s possible that I will look back on this time in Suzhou as some of the happiest days of my life. For years I’d been longing for just the kind of hermetic retreat this residency afforded me, to be isolated in an environment where I could focus on work and study. In addition to putting this show together and constructing my Self-Portrait installation, I worked on songs for my upcoming CD release Shanghai Travelogue (next step: taking the stems to my pal Mike’s place near Seattle in early 2011 to mix!), getting caught up on Chinese study (now I’m just shy of 3000 characters), and other miscellaneous writing, reading, composing (sketches for at least two future pieces), and documentation. It was a productive, peaceful, and idyllic time; if anything, I wish I could have taken better advantage of the situation, without having to pop into Shanghai so often or taking most of the month of August to tour Germany.

Here’s a very informal tour of the museum and my exhibition that I recorded in the fleeting moments before I left Suzhou:

The Point of Departure/True Color Museum Tour from Ben Houge on Vimeo.

My friend Maya Kramer was the first foreign artist to do a residency at True Color (and I am in awe of her fortitude; she came in cold from the US, first time in China, not speaking a lick of Chinese, immediately sequestered to the outskirts of Suzhou, and totally thrived). She warned me that it would be lonely sometimes, but I remember several weekend evenings realizing that I was the only person in this huge building, and feeling nothing but contentment in my rooftop retreat. The only kink was when, about halfway through my residency, the cook who had been providing me with 3 square (if somewhat homogenous) meals/day got fired, and from that point on foraging for food became a challenge in this remote location; for the last 3 months of my residency, I subsisted on bananas, mooncakes (the Chinese equivalent of fruitcake, very solid food), and green tea.

The museum’s commitment to art is serious. The previous big group show last summer at the museum was vast, and really good. I don’t know how many people saw it, but almost certainly fewer than should have. The show was called “中国性 Nature of China: Contemporary Art Documenta.” Maybe it’s a little goofy to review a show that’s already been taken down, but I thought I’d go ahead and post my notes from that exhibition, quick blurbs about artists whose work I dug, or who at least provoked me in some way.

王岩 Wang Yan
Big, polluted, industrial landscapes
Dark and Kieferesque

施慧 Shi Hui
Big papier-mâché (or some such technique) stools/drums
Nice environmental installation, with a dialog between some drums arranged haphazardly on the ground and others suspended from the ceiling

马晗 Ma Han
Went to construction sites and ground sand from various kinds of rubble
Affixed this sand to canvas to make earth-hued, Barnett Newman-style horizontal zips, nice texture
Sand was also lined up in jars, perhaps overly documented with photographs, but gets the idea across
Same artist also did a huge flock of starched black and white shirts hanging from the ceiling
Also did these weird candied bonsai trees, dripping, lumpy texture, lit from beneath, all made out of tiny people and rice

贺丹 He Dan
Several large paintings, depicting throngs of people in realistic detail, contrasting the stark formal composition of the canvases
Big plane was my favorite, looming ominously and menacingly over the crowd, an alienating display of power and technology
Another painting of crowds carrying red flags was less effective, perhaps a bit jingoistic? Or maybe that was the point

马良 Ma Liang
B&W photographs of miniature figures in fantastical pastoral scenes, evoking historical painting
Incorporating dead fish and chicken, surreal, decay
Chinese calligraphy inscriptions

王强 Wang Qiang
Hollow, woven, suspended clouds, nice effect
Not sure what these were made out of, but some super light material that traced the clouds’ outline
I had a nice view of this piece through the skylight from my quarters upstairs

梁绍基 Liang Shaoji
听蚕 Listening to the Silk Worms
A big dark room that housed several incubators in which silk worms lived their life cycles
Additional pillows with headphones to listen to them, and some videos near the roof, as I recall
Great sound and smell, sad they tossed it after a few days

郑达 Zheng Da
虚拟的肖像
OK, this was the one piece I hated; if you’re going to do a piece that evokes videogames in any sense and fails to achieve excellence, prepare to incur my wrath!
Everything about this was poor
Concept was dumb and blunt: you run around a virtual world with your avatar and click on the things you “want” (material goods, big assumptions), and they explode
Explosions only make sound part of the time, and the sounds are terrible
Explosions are ugly, particles don’t disappear, just hang in space
No life in environment, just some easy flowing water
There’s no game here, it just arbitrarily ends after a while
Bad ergonomics/interface (mouse on a low table in the dark, makes your wrist hurt after a minute)
Bad music loop
Terrible, terrible

王剑 Wang Jian
欲象 Phenomenon of Desire
Abstracted grayscale paintings, bodily forms, ephemeral, evocative
I’m told this guy used to have my studio!
Gestural clarity

幸鑫 Xing Xin
吾与浮冰 Meditation on Floating Ice
Performance event, commenting on carbon emissions, among other things
Head to a glacier at the head of the Yangtze River near Tibet
Collect a piece of ice and take it to the East China Sea to melt
“We hope the audience could try to understand such boring guys like us!”
Car plate issue (had to bypass Shanghai, one of the many ridiculous restrictions on Shanghai life imposed by the Expo)
Accompanying video of him floating down the Yangtze on a bed is cool, though!
More at http://blog.artintern.net/xingxin

杨福东 Yang Fudong
半马索 (2010)
Videos of guys in suits leading donkeys through canyons
Nice, elegiac, typical Yang Fudong
BTW, like me, Yang Fudong also used to work for Ubisoft Shanghai!

Huge sculptures outside
隋建国 Sui Jianguo’s big suspended metal block
Also a car with a rock garden in its hood; didn’t see who that was by

金锋 Jin Feng
Printed scrolls of etched graffiti
Same guy I exhibited with at OV Gallery’s “Make Over” show earlier this year!

刘建华 Liu Jianhua’s large sheets of blank paper, slightly bent, that turn out to be porcelain upon closer inspection
These were super cool

孟涛 Meng Tao’s big canvas of peacocks are striking
He hired some master silk embroiderers to reproduce his painting and suspended them side by side, very nice presentation, stretched out on a loom
Performative documentation unnecessary, as is the fact that he did the original painting in one 24 hour session
(like that Icelandic guy at the Venice biennale…when did painting become performance? Why can’t it just be a practice or a discipline? Are painters feeling so marginalized that they feel they must subject themselves to this awkward artistic rebranding?)

汪建伟 Wang Jianwei
Not sure about his big video: 时间•剧场•展览
This was the weird historical thing, period costumes, bunch of scenes, no dialog, odd nonsequiturs very theatrical (no real set, just presented in a big, dark, black box type space)
But it was projected on a heck of a projector, which I was happy to later use for my Transportation video!

曾晓峰 Zeng Xiaofeng
Creepy dark portraits, faces of animals, weird pseudo-scientific scribbles and props

Farewell for now, True Color!

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