November 10, 2009

Personal Encounters gets to the core of communities

At most art exhibit openings, the procedure is pretty standard: Mingle with artists, eat hors d’oeuvres, and try not to get drunk off the free wine. At the opening of Close Encounters at the Hyde Park Arts Center this weekend, however, the procedure was far from ordinary; the artists forced patrons to take part in the exhibit itself. As a part of Close Encounters, visitors entering the gallery must answer a series of personal questions such as, “What is your income?”, “How old are you?”, and “What are your expectations for the exhibit?” This strange and rather frustrating screening process, imagined by artist Tania Bruguera, is part of the exhibit’s goal to explore the various ways that communities are created and discussed.

Based on the artists’ experiences at various community gatherings in 2008, the pieces in Close Encounters brilliantly examine the various aspects of the communities—racial, ethnic, regional, and otherwise—that constitute our world. Bruguera’s bizarre but innovative welcome to the exhibit questions the bureaucracy that can often affect a person’s desire to belong to a certain group. More specifically, the screening makes those waiting in line want to be included in the group of participants privileged enough to enter. This sets up a political theme that is expressed in most of the exhibit’s other works.

Walter Hood and Wayne Youle adhere to this theme by addressing the unique problems of a multicultural society. Specifically, the artists focus on stereotypes and their troubling implications. Hood’s “Why am I the Only Black Guy Without a Tattoo?” is a fascinating installation that plays with ideas of generalization and projection. On six video screens, Hood shows a video in which he projects images directly onto people and documents their reactions to the bright light. The individuals’ uncomfortable and funny facial expressions illustrate the awkwardness that can be felt when certain ideals are projected onto someone by their community.

Like Lowe, Youle’s “Erection Destruction Relocation Reflection Erection” also addresses stereotypes; however, this piece deals with American iconography and ideals. Youle uses various items of Americana and distorts them in several ways. In a picture called "Erect/Flaccid," Youle juxtaposes a United States flag in the wind and a still flag to compare impotence and patriotism. “Erection” certainly references the societal commonality that iconography represents, but Youle’s subversion rightly questions how we use the notions behind it.

Artist Juan Angel Chávez takes a more peaceful approach by illustrating how nature can unite people. After participating in a Maori tribe meeting, Chávez created a structure that mimics the smoke from the Native American tribal rituals. The immense spiraling sculpture, entitled “Bogart,” twists upward like smoke from a fire, demanding both visual attention and physical participation from attendants—it is situated directly in front of the exhibit’s doorway, forcing people to walk around it. Chávez’s beautiful artwork demonstrates the intimate practices of the Maori community, as well as the power of nature to connect a group of people.

Artist Truman Lowe also incorporates the theme of nature in his work “Water, Origin, Myth.” Using pieces of a willow tree, Lowe constructed parts of a canoe and placed them in separate pieces on a gallery wall. The segments of the boat collectively represent a community that uses this vessel, but individually they create a distinct significance for each viewer. The pieces project intricate shadows on the wall that change given the weather and time of day, giving guests both individual and shared experiences with the work.

Close Encounters’ unorthodox welcome may leave some afraid to delve into the exhibit, but if people can get beyond the unusual entrance, they will not only find extraordinary views of intriguing communities, but also the creation of communities.