Conceptual art can be a little dicey. While one person might look at porta-potty doors mounted on a wall and grasp the nuances of what the artist intended, another might just see porta-potty doors mounted on a wall.
'There's definitely some difficultly in doing conceptual art,' says Lauren Lim, a member of the collective ACEcollaborations. 'We try to give some context with each piece so that people have a starting point for understanding. But we still get those who say, ‘How is this art?''
On a gloomy day in late May, Lim and three of her collaborators-Eric Baskauskas, Colin Prothero and Akemi Hong-have gathered at the site of their latest installation, Occupation: ACEcollaborations @ Workspace. The show isn't housed in a gallery or an artist's studio; it's in a tiny rented office hidden away on the second floor of a featureless business park in Miramar.
'It's a wasteland out here,' says Baskauskas. 'We're dealing with the term ‘occupation,' both in the professional sense and the military sense. People come here solely to work at an office or for the military. There are no welcoming characteristics whatsoever.''
The series of orange-and-blue porta-potty doors-a mixed-media piece by Prothero titled 'Solitudinem Fecerunt, Pacem Appelunt'-is just one of the nine installations on view in the space (the show's two other main participants, Camilo Ontiveros and Katherine Purves, were not present for the interview).
With a little time and consideration, say the ACE artists, the meaning of the individual pieces and their relationship to occupation begin to unfold.
For example, the title of Prothero's piece hails from the Roman Empire and translates to: 'They Made a Desert and Called it Peace.' Desert, in this sense, implies a wasteland. The Latin quote has military roots and, in the mind of the artist, is particularly powerful today. What's the connection to the porta-potties? Go ahead, put on your thinking cap. According to Prothero: 'There's no concise answer. It's a dialogue between you and the art.'
Other pieces make obvious reference to the war in Iraq. Hong's 'Blunderers & Cattle-herders' spells out those very titular words in motor-oil on two standard-issue desks. Lauren Lim's poignant 'Don't Worry, They're Coming' requires a glance up to the ceiling, where dozens of miniature white parachutes attached to houses hang hopelessly suspended. And Baskauskas' untitled roving sculpture, a repurposed robotic vacuum, is seemingly commanded by a tiny figure in a three-piece suit and bulletproof vest but instead roams the room aimlessly. Bumping into walls, backing up, going forward again-it lacks direction or destination.
War is a giant red bulls-eye, though-an easy target. The pieces that speak most authentically at this exhibition are the ones having to do with the professional life.
The ACE artists are all recent UCSD grads in their early 20s. Suddenly, with art degrees tucked under their arms, they're expected to go out into the world and find a profession. An occupation.
'I'm struggling with that,' says Lim. 'I can't imagine doing anything else [besides art]. I'm trying to look for a full-time job. A real job with a salary.'
'The best thing,' Baskauskas adds, 'is to hope for an 8:30-to-4 job that doesn't kill me, that doesn't consume me, that doesn't distract me from what really matters and that gives me the freedom to do what I want.'
The uneasy balance between paying bills and pursuing passion is an ancient artist's dilemma. The anxiety it stirs up gives the ACE artwork real spirit, even if it ever-so-slightly smacks of art-school pretension.
Witness Baskauskas' 'Haystacks' (an installation done in collaboration with Angela Hsai), a nondescript office with a Monet print on the wall and a thick stack of highlighted personal e-mails on the desk. Or his 'Vistas,' a dark office with the door barely propped open to reveal a computer screen on which scenes captured by a mounted security camera in the main room flicker with perceived menace.
Here, the connection between the different senses of occupation is strikingly clear.
'The military and the office are both strictly regimented,' Baskauskas explains.
Whether you put on a uniform or a suit, you are occupying a role, Katherine Purves' '5:04' seems to be saying. It's a snakeskin-like sculpture made from wheat spring-roll wrappers and acrylic. Sprawled out on the floor, it appears hastily discarded, like a rumpled suit-the metaphorical shedding of skin just moments after clock-out.
Baskauskas-who, by his own admission, has the best day job of the group-paid a two-month lease for the office-space-turned-gallery, which he estimates cost about $2,500 with insurance. ACE raised $1,000 for the installation at a fundraising auction, and he covered the rest out-of-pocket.
Other ACE exhibitions have made their homes in even stranger locations-most notably motels and hotels. On March 2 and 3, 11 artists displayed their work in a makeshift hotel-room gallery in Anaheim, home of Disneyland. Titled Exit Routes, the show explored the pursuit of escape via the world-famous vacation destination. The artists handed out flyers and waited for visitors. A steady trickle of people actually showed up.
'Conceptual art can be intimidating,' says Hong. 'We try to find spaces that don't intimidate. We don't want a sterile white box. We want to spark conversation.'
What's really admirable about these young artists is that they're not going to make a dime on any of this. There aren't any price sheets on clipboards or red dots on the walls at Workspace. In fact, they're losing money-making art for art's sake.
'We're idealists, but we're also practical,' continues Hong. Her colleagues nod their heads in agreement. 'We're all going to have to get jobs to support ourselves. Nobody talks about what happens after college. I know I want to do art. But who knows what will happen in 10 years.'
Adds Lim: 'I once had a TA tell me that if you're going to be an artist, you have to love it, breathe it, eat it and sleep it.'
And that's exactly what they're doing, together-for now anyway, until the real world sends them tumbling in different directions to fulfill new and probably unimagined occupations.
Occupation ACEcollaborations @ Workspace is closing with TGIF, a performance and interactive reception from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. Friday, June 22. www.acecollaborations.org
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