Commercial galleries have a difficult time justifying exhibitions of cutting-edge, multimedia work; not many art consumers are inclined to purchase multiscreen, multiroom video/sound installations, let alone the fact that the work is often somewhat, well, difficult. But an intellectual challenge is always welcome in my book, even if it reveals aesthetic emptiness. Certainly, I had to work to make something of Arthur Liou"s Things That Are Edible (of the above-mentioned media), on view now at J. Martin Gallery.
J. Martin Gallery, which is located in Fountain Square in a rehabbed, smallish apartment building, is the perfect setup for Liou"s almost-virtual reality art piece. DVD screens are installed in three spaces, two upstairs and one in the basement. Inside the gallery door I am greeted by floor-to-ceiling black drapes that overlap to create a sort of envelope entryway to the first space. The only greeting is an ominous soundtrack coming from the bowels of the gallery. But then I spy a sign affixed to a cardboard box; it assures me, "We"re open! Come on in!" So I do.
Here, on the first of three super-sized continuous roll projections that comprise the installation, a close-up video of the act of eating Chinese food unfurls. Covertly dramatic music plays in the background as a single hand lifts hunks of food off the Styrofoam plate, primarily with chopsticks. All of this occurs in jerky movements as well as slow-motion ones, and the effect is voyeuristic. Who wants to be this close to the act of eating - someone else"s eating, that is? On the opposite wall, three minuscule screens depict various acts of food preparation; the screens are contrived to resemble TV trays (or so they appear).
The overall feeling is banal - which is, perhaps, what Liou intends. Liou writes in his artist"s statement that his mother is a great cook who "uses her skill to keep our family together, the relatives close, to maintain political allies for my father, and to make our carpenter happy so he makes better shelves for us. All is done in an intimate family setting." The installation, then, is an odd recreation of intimacy but without the communal aspect; the act of eating, here, is decidedly solitary, devoid of a larger, more meaningful context. "As much as I care about food," Liou adds, "these installations are not inspired by it." Liou"s resignation is evident in the emptiness of these images, which, collectively, are puzzling, but at the same time, intoxicating.
Eating, of course, is a metaphor for consummation. Hunger is an insatiable drive, a consuming one; we hunger, but we are never filled. Even the artist"s choice of media - the multisensory promise of DVD - is apt. Liou remarks that even in Taiwan the ritual of eating "has evolved to an overindulgence of food and drink." Liou"s second screen reveals a solitary image - super-sized - of green onions being chopped atop another screen depicting what appears to be political and movie imagery. The screen itself moves with the act of slicing. This chopping supercedes the violence that flashes past underneath in dreamlike chaos; the knife harrumphs down as if it were the blade of God.
This sets the tone for an even greater foreboding: As I venture towards the basement, I hear the crack of guns, or so I imagine. But when I arrive there, I realize that I am meant to perceive a ship"s hull plowing through monstrous waves. The creaking is of rigging, perhaps; but we don"t see an actual ship - we are only made to feel as if we are in one, and the feeling is palpable. Again, there"s a bigness superimposed by a banal dramatization of food. Here, the second, smaller screen depicts the inside of a refrigerator, the contents of which appear and disappear. The ocean surrounding the undulating refrigerator shelf, which, of course, moves with the swelling of the waves, is massive; a distant, aquamarine horizon like a distant dream - a hope, perhaps, that is ever unattainable. We are anchored in the embrace of an insatiable place.
Martin"s choice of a relatively unconsumable installation, then, is to be commended; few galleries take such risks in this town - commercial or otherwise. Perhaps they can"t afford to. While the DVD is available for sale in limited edition copies, and still shots (framed and unframed) are also for sale, it is unlikely that such a provocative piece will sell like, well, hotcakes.
Things That Are Edible at J. Martin Gallery, 874 Virginia Ave., is on view through Oct. 4. Call 916-2874 or visit www.jmartingallery.com.