April 5th, 2006


One-Eyed Willie at SVA

One of my favourite things to do is to go round art school degree shows looking at the work, so yesterday was a bit of a red-letter day for me: I got to do it and get paid for it too. Ryan Sullivan, a postgrad student at School of Visual Arts, invited me up to do a series of official studio visits.

When I got to 21st Street the students clustered around the SVA door recognized me from the Whitney show, which they'd all seen. "Hey, it's the Unreliable Tour Guide!" they shouted. (Nicer than "Hey, it's the parasite guy!", the greeting I got on the street for a few weeks back in 2003 after talking about my eye problem -- acanthamoeba keratitis -- in a popular BBC documentary about parasites.) After getting security clearance and doing some paperwork, I spent about half an hour each with four students, Mike Egan, Yu Sheng Ho, Si Jae Byun, and Ryan himself. Actually, it turned out Ryan had an ulterior motive; he wanted to shoot some video of me for a spoof on 80s movie The Goonies. To be precise, he wanted me to play the pirate One-Eyed Willie. Blistering barnacles!

I looked at Mike's work first. Up on the walls of his studio space was ranged disjecta from performances he'd done. He showed me one on video. It looked like a cross between a Lightning Bolt show and a Paul McCarthy performance. People played rock and smashed up big treehouse-type sculptures. So I launched into a diatribe on the Dionysian energy of rock music, and how it leads to frat boys, to Thanatos rather than Eros, to Jim Morrison and Kurt Kobain dying early. Mike accepted that, but said that he was interested in taking the "4 real" elements out of rock extremity. Somehow we got onto the fact that his dad is a Marine Swift Boat commander who's about to be sent up the Tigris in Iraq... and then time ran out.

The work of Yu Sheng Ho (top picture) couldn't have been more different; he's from Taiwan, and although he didn't like to think of himself as "vending Asianness", I did feel that his work's measured and playful quality was as positively Apollonian as Mike's work was negatively Dionysian. Instead of destructo-art, Yu Sheng was interested in snapping stuff together and building stuff up. He had inflatable yellow modular blocks, magnetized wooden blocks, photos of city-like installations he'd built laboriously out of wooden building blocks, and an amazing piece, a vast soft plastic penis that erected when air was pumped into it, then withdrew into itself when a vacuum was formed, creating an image of the female genitalia. There was also a two-screen video installation of an object's-eye-view of two differently-shaped objects rolling down the street (you worked out the shape by watching the movements) and an incredible "transparent plastic steam octopus" installation. I wasn't surprised to hear that a New York gallery has already bought some of Yu Sheng's work (the penis machine), and left his cubicle convinced that he'll be an important artist.

Si Jae Byun is from Korea. Her work consists of tight, soft, dark little spaces -- igloos, caves, wendy houses -- made of pink sewn fabric, into which she projects videos based on memories of her "lonely digestion" (as a child she was left alone at home during the day, both lonely and hungry). Si Jae seemed a lot more nostalgic for Korea than Yu Sheng did for Taiwan, and was happy to see her colour selection, and her themes of handicraft, childhood and food as rather "Korean" ones. We talked about the metaphor of Plato's Cave, and whether adding video strengthens the experience for the "audience" clambering through these womblike spaces or detracts from it.

Ryan's paintings are deliberately "bad", sort of Otto Dix mixed with daycare, outreach, or art therapy. There's a neurotic menace emanating from his crude, folksy portraits and figures. We talked about whether the paintings could stand on their own, or whether they should be presented as part of installations: walls full of mixed styles, presented perhaps by a fictional persona (in the style of Jutta Koether) or as part of a Sophie Calle-style "investigation". I thought they'd be more disturbing presented straight, but not necessarily disturbing in a good way, and more reassuringly decorative presented in an installation with some added conceptual elements, but again, that might not be a good thing. The Otto Dix parallel led us to a conversation about whether America was Germany in the 30s.

I told Ryan I'd probably blog the visit as a contrast between neurotic, destructive American artists representing a civilisation in decline and healthy, constructive Asian ones representing a civilisation on the rise. "You'd probably be right about that," said Ryan... then immediately took revenge on behalf of America by typecasting me as One-Eyed Willie.