“Wave” is one of the harder-working words in the English language,describing everything from a gesture of greeting to the electrical rhythms in the brain to undulations of heat, sound and water. It can denote a sudden influx of people—a wave of immigrants, for example—or a surge of new ideas or technologies.
At the San Diego Museum of Art, many of these meanings collide in Inside the Wave: Six San Diego/Tijuana Artists Explore Social Art, which runs through June 22. It's a contemporary exhibition that rides a barrel from the near-past to the near-future, all the while providing thought-provoking commentary on what's happening right now.
“I thought this group of artists really spoke to each other,” says Bettie-Sue Hertz, the museum's curator of contemporary art. “They're all using very contemporary strategies to present work that has a relationship to aesthetics. But it's primarily conceptual work trying to get at some kind of social condition or some kind of industry that's happening in San Diego or in the region.”
Conceptual art without context can be baffling, and though Inside the Wave is engaging without explanation, a few words from the artists can offer a lot more enlightenment than any museum placard.
On April 1, the artists (or representatives from artists' collectives, in two cases) gathered at the museum for a panel discussion on the exhibition. Consider this a guided tour.
Tall, bespectacled and wearing an orange button-down over graphic-patterned shorts, Dick is hard to miss—especially since he's handing out stickers next to a piñata-topped mascot that he created for the museum as part of his playful Nationwide Museum Mascot Project. Dick manufactures these temporary mascots from secondhand materials—usually junk found at local thrift stores—a process he calls “working low to the ground.” Dick's contribution to Inside the Wave also includes three photographs from his Making My Bed series. During his talk, he shows some short films of his mascots out in public, which either seem to be lovingly embraced or willfully ignored by passersby. Perhaps the mascot is a good metaphor for art itself: All you gotta do is open yourself up a little and let it wrap its arms around you.
“I like to make poetry with stuff that's already around,” explains the clever Brooklyn-born artist, who moved west to get her master's degree at UCSD. “I deploy simple materials to make meaning by diverting.” She says her recent work explores populist Americana in all its conflicted hopelessness and optimism. Wiese contributed two pieces to Inside the Wave. One is a whiskey still, made from plumbing supplies purchased at Lowe's. It produces “surprisingly good corn whiskey” (illegal, by the way). She says her work often shares strategies with suburban garage tinkerers, a DIY subculture prevalent in Southern California. Wiese's other piece, a basic flashing-arrow sign—the kind you might see at a used-car lot or cheap motel—has been rewired to blink in Morse code. The message: The lyrics to Merle Haggard's “If We Make it Through December,” a ballad that fantasizes about the sunny California life. What could be more perfect for the tourists passing by the museum?
This Serbian artist arrived in San Diego in 1992 after fleeing what was then known as Yugoslavia. His '2 Endless Collapsible Columns,' which uses foldable found materials once belonging to the U.S. military, references Constantin Brancusi's 1937 sculpture 'Endless Column.” Vukosavljevic's contributions also include a series of drawings on blackboard, depicting scenes from the Serbian countryside. It's work that explores, among other themes, military occupation and clinging to local identity in the midst of globalization. On stage, Vukosavljevic—whose accented English has taken on the “likes” and “you knows” of San Diego-speak—offers an “analog” presentation. He drops a couple of mid-century vinyl records on a vintage portable turntable. One intones a simple but grave mantra for surviving an atomic bomb: “Be alert. Stay alert.” The artist snickers as this plays. His artwork appears heavy at first glance, but his sense of humor gradually emerges.
Quite fitting for an artist whose work explores digital media, Jenik connects to the panel discussion via Skype from Shanghai, where she's participating in a professorial exchange. Jenik contributed the multimedia piece “SPECFLIC: Welcum to the InfoSphere.” Nope, that's not a typo. Part of Jenik's ongoing research explores the evolution—devolution?— of language as technology advances. Quotations written in the “c u l8tr” style we commonly use for electronic communication scroll along the walls and are disturbingly instinctual to decipher. Jenik's piece also includes video footage of “infospherians”—cyborg librarians who discuss the future of books and the library (piles of physical books, it should be noted, are used for seating). “I'm interested in thinking through the way that these technologies are interacting and changing the way we conceive of public access and space,” Jenik explains.
Hands down, this group's high-tech piece exploring nanotechnology is the most distressing and subversive of the bunch. Nanotechnology, to give a little background, constructs and re-jiggers matter on an atomic scale. It's a hot new field of research, but it's loaded with worrisome ethical questions, especially where unwitting consumers are concerned. Particle Group, a UCSD collective funded by Calit2 and the Arts & Humanities division, created a series of nanotechnology-based sound sculptures that respond to movement with slogans hissed through sterile white speakers. Investigator and collective member Nina Waisman sheds light on the way the technology reacts to its audience: “Every time you think you have more control, you are actually giving more of your body.” Yikes. It's hard science presented in an understandable and foreboding manner.
Tijuana-based Bulbo, a collective of print- and electronic-media artists, offers the most moving piece in the exhibition. The room-size installation “Tijuaneados Anonymous” uses the metaphor of a 12-step program to demand sweeping social change that can only begin on an individual level. Like an AA meeting room, the installation includes a podium, which, Bulbo member José Luis Figueroa says, gives power to the people. “You can speak of your problems and everyone listens,” he says. Hanging over a table of coffee cups and cookies are depressing photographs of Tijuana, a city Bulbo describes as “a laboratory of the impact of globalization and post-modernity.” The term “Tijuaneados” was first used in auto classifieds to describe the seriously beat-up condition of any vehicle that's been on the streets of TJ. It's come to signify any person who has suffered as a result of living there. But, Bulbo claims, it's time to stop blaming “others” for a collective problem. Tijuana es la suma de todos: The city is the sum of everyone. (If you're interested, there is an actual Zona Centro storefront offering bilingual Tijuaneados Anonymous sessions every Saturday: tijuaneadosanonimos.wordpress.com).
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