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LOS ANGELES — I pay too much for parking and get vague directions from the concierge. I bypass businessmen sipping whiskey and an ROTC prom event. In the end, I find David Hartt’s exhibition, Interval, produced by LA><ART, situated on the second floor of downtown’s Bonaventure Hotel.
An intriguing audio stream forces me into a beeline, neglecting a series of seven photographs, each displayed as storefront decals, along the way. The audio comes from a video installation: two monitors are arranged slightly off-center and just far enough apart that, while sitting on the strange mint-green benches provided, one cannot take in both screens at once. Short, tightly constructed clips with subjects such as military helicopters, bug-eaten shrubbery, correctional facilities, abandoned stadiums, disparate traffic, and the occasional passerby fill the screens. The black-and-white video eliminates color differences in the images, equalizing them. One is left with only the billboards and license plates in the footage to point to time and place.
The locations are Siberia and the Yukon, selected for their relationships with writer Anton Chekhov (1860–1904) and pianist Glenn Gould (1932–1982), respectively. These two historical figures travelled to the sites, because they, in Hartt’s words, “found it necessary to find subjects on the periphery of their individual societies in order to find the critical distance to comment on the center.”
The shots portray the outskirts of urbanity: man-marred nature, abandoned rubble. At brief intervals of synchronicity, the scenes in the two videos drastically alter to become a spectacle — stage lights and disco balls. Coupled with the Slavic and English billboards, these interludes bring to mind the staging of history and the theatricality of the Cold War.
There is a direct correlation between the detritus in the video and the defunctness of the “gallery” space, which apparently lived a former life as a floral shop. Posters of flowers and a sign offering “giftbags” decorate the walls in various states of disrepair. Decorative mirrors and a walk-in, temperature-controlled room provide a haunting stage for Hartt’s exhibition. Most likely, the green bench is a salvaged piece, repurposed from the space’s former life.
Near the entrance a newsprint catalogue rests on yet another mint bench; the cover features two men: one stubbly, sullen, and overweight, the other young, healthy, and striking an athletic pose next to a sports car. Both subjects disappoint, in different ways.
The men form a comparison of East versus West in figurative form, and their simultaneous inadequacy once again highlights the fallout from post–Cold War politics. Turning back to the film, the billboards and waste, especially in Siberia, take on new significance and sadness. Did the right side win? Or was the choice, as with the men that grace the cover of the essay, no choice at all? Yes, we beat the so-called socialist fascists. Apparently what we have to show for it are half-abandoned mini malls, $10 parking, and military proms.
Even with this potent line of thought, however, there are times when the film feels overly aestheticized — the well-composed shots, pleasing soundtrack, and high-definition video too glossy for the political ideologies it critiques. The film industry so often use moving images to romanticize war and political oppression that in this respite of criticality I want more ugly.
In the end what makes Interval is location. The subjects of the film may or may not depict the economic and political realities of Russia and Canada, the East and the West, through abandoned detritus and militarized control units, but at the Westin Bonaventure Hotel a new type of problem is found. The postmodern aesthetic of the building dismantles the hierarchies modernist architecture implicitly promotes, but at a cost. How does one find the critical distance Chekhov and Gould deemed so necessary to their work as artists and social commentators in a mini-mall/spinning restaurant/hotel hybrid? Here there is no center to critique.
David Hartt: Interval, part of LA><ART’s ongoing series The Occasional, continues at the Bonaventure Hotel (404 South Figueroa Street, Suite 201A, Downtown Los Angeles) through April 11.