What are We Saying? 'Electronic Pacific' at SOMArts

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In the trailer for his 2006 film Babel, director Alejandro González Iñárritu includes a voiceover, one reciting a well-known passage from the Book of Genesis that tells of a unified language and pervasive understanding that man enjoyed prior to the Flood. That clarity, that point of agreement was troubled when dissimilar languages -- understood here as a metaphor for different identities and interests -- were introduced and the disparate tribes with which we associate were formed. Iñárritu's inclusion of the voiceover is a predictable cinematic trope, but it raises issues about what and how we communicate, and how that dialogue is often overwhelmed by other concerns. Electronic Pacific, which opened at SOMArts on July 11, takes up the increasingly digitized exchange of art and language in the work of eighteen artists that span the complex divide between countries around the Pacific Rim.

The main gallery at SOMArts is not the easiest space to curate, given the institution's broad mission and it's unusual architectural footprint. It could easily look or feel crowded with multiple 3D objects vying for viewer's attention. For Electronic Pacific, gallery curator and director Justin Hoover creates a very manageable experience, one that permits audiences to move through the space without the worrying sense of tripping over or backing into the objects on display.

Thom Faulders and Lynn Marie Kirby, The Crystalline World: SUBHEDRAL, 2013.

Presentation strategies are central to this exhibition, including Lynn Marie Kirby and Thom Faulders' The Crystalline World: SUBHEDRAL, a commanding sculpture crafted from laser cut foam that invites viewers to experience the piece from both inside and out. The small, uniform blocks, inspired by a series of walks and encounters around the Bay Area and in China, reflect Kirby's interest in salt mining and its environmental and economic impacts worldwide. Taken further, Kirby's work could represent the stacked shipping containers that carry commercial goods across the Pacific Ocean in an uninterrupted cycle of production and consumption that irrevocably binds east and west.

Videos by Laura Hyunjhee Kim

At the center of the gallery, three full-size shipping containers are utilized to create micro viewing environments for installations by Lauren Hyunjhee Kim and Marya Krogstad. Kim's multi-channel piece, which combines autobiography, art historical references, and mass media in an examination of how meaning is communicated textually and visually, is by far the loudest and funniest piece in the exhibition. Watching the old school monitors on which the six short videos are looped, we see the artist in multiple scenarios, but it is nearly impossible to hear what she is saying. While I would like to have heard more of the artist's deadpan humor, the point, at least in part, is that we can't hear what she is saying over the virtual wall of noise that is created.


Marya Krogstad's Bonaventure, described as the third in a trio of pieces and the outcome of the artist's visit to the Westin Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles, once described as a "hyper space" by cultural theorist Frederick Jameson, combines Rorschach-like imagery overlaid with diegetic sound in the artist's consideration of transience. Krogstad's fragmented, undulating figure appears to move in response to ambient sound, nearly coming into focus numerous times before vanishing again.

Vaimaila Urale and Sam McWilliams, Typeface (Tattoo), 2012.

Language as a multifaceted form, and as a site of appropriation, is considered by many of the exhibiting artists, including Auckland-based Vaimaila Urale. For Typeface, Urale merges ASCII art, an early computer image-making technique that uses keyboard characters to form pictures, to organize dashes and slashes into patterns resembling traditional Samoan creations in bark cloth and tattoos. Urale's work, realized in this exhibition in video, framed prints, and tattoos made to order at the exhibition's opening night event, examines the direction in which cultural exchange is conducted, and how those terms are no longer solely determined by western societies.

Amid this boisterous exhibition, where sounds clash to create the metaphoric noise that inhibits clear communication between cultures, I found that it is the quiet pieces that reinforce both the connection and the isolation of the Internet Age. Jenny Odell's photographs of shipping containers, acquired via Google Satellite and other sources, are seen from an aerial perspective and take on the appearance of toy ships. Odell works in manner similar to photographer Doug Rickard and others who use Google as a means of sourcing and collecting imagery, rather than being a producer of images herself. Odell's compositions -- the orderly arrangement of images of these massive conveyances -- bears more than a passing resemblance to sketches of ships carrying enslaved Africans to bondage in the New World. Everything is in its place, but beneath that veneer of methodic organization something isn't right.

Electronic Pacific succeeds not only as a well-conceived group exhibition, but also in offering audiences a moment to consider what we say, how we say it, and to whom, as globalization propels us toward an uncertain future.

Electronic Pacific is on view through August 17, 2013 at SOMArts in San Francisco, with a second opening at Root Division on August 7. For more information, visit somarts.org

All photos: Kelley Bennett (SOMArts).