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LOS ANGELES — Art is humanity’s attempt to articulate life’s intangible experiences. That idea is reflected in the title of Unspeakable, a new exhibition at UCLA’s Hammer Museum. Museum director Ann Philbin and chief curator Connie Butler have created a trilogy of video installations from the Hammer Contemporary Collection, each projected in adjoining spaces. Each of the videos was made by a major artist — Kara Walker, Barbara Kruger, and Charles Atlas — within the past 10 years. In any one room, a visitor will still hear the audio of the other two, reinforcing the relationships between them.
Both the entrance and exit to Unspeakable bring visitors to the newest of the three installations, Charles Atlas’s 2017 work “The Tyranny of Consciousness,” with the other two accessed on either side of it. In the video, drag queen Lady Bunny delivers a cogent monologue on how mass apathy and corporate malfeasance frustrate progress in the US and beyond. With its broad range of ideas, the video’s central position serves as a bridge between the other two, which deal with historical racism and globalization, respectively. The five-channel installation consists of a mosaic of 44 different sunsets over water happening at once, accompanied by a separate screen bearing an 18-minute countdown to darkness. The video collage continually shape-shifts, rearranging its grid to place the drowning suns in different positions.
After the suns set, a brief moment of black fades in to a close-up of Lady Bunny for a full-length song. But this isn’t a relief from the somber mood but an ironic continuation. Despite the upbeat music and typically flamboyant drag performance, the lyrics express frustration and self-loathing:
What the fuck is wrong with me
I don’t like who it is I see
I look in the mirror
and it all becomes clearer
Slowly, I’m being forced to see
You were the one
I knew it, but I blew it, yeah
You were the one, the one for me
You were the one
I knew it, but I blew it, yeah
You were the one
You can put the blame on me
The seemingly different soliloquy and musical act are in fact the same, comparing political helplessness with interpersonal failure.
The oldest (from 2007) and most complex work of the three is Kara Walker’s “…calling to me from the angry surface of some grey and threatening sea. I was transported.” Its five channels project different sequences, granting far more depth than the 11-minute runtime suggests. It’s difficult to process all the screens at once and impossible to properly consider them at the same time, requiring greater scrutiny from the visitor.
Each screen presents a series of vignettes. The three in the center depict animations involving the black cutout puppets Walker is known for, acting out vignettes mainly having to do with slavery or the Civil War but also addressing African American anxieties in general. The scenes are archetypical or emotionally abstract rather than concrete stories. A black boy and girl abscond to the woods for a romantic encounter (or to plot escape?). A slaver abuses a black infant, possibly his own child. A man in a coffin slides into a coffin-shaped hole in the ground. The two channels on either side feature multilayered drawn landscapes of foliage, as well as historical drawings and photos which include allusions to the Darfur genocide and Sally Hemings. The overall effect is dread born of unresolved inherited pain.
Philosopher Homi Bhabha said “The globe shrinks for those who own it,” a quote which, besides providing the name, appears directly in Barbara Kruger’s 2010 piece “The Globe Shrinks.” The four channels are projected onto one wall of a room, demanding that the viewer stay alert and keep turning their head. Bhabha’s quote wraps around all four walls, and it only shows up long enough for the quickest visitor to spin around to read the entire thing.
Kruger continually makes clever use of the play between the different projections, reinforcing the video’s theme of cause and effect in social actions. This is illustrated most plainly in a scene in which one wall projects a fan while the wall opposite projects the woman it’s blowing air on. In one formally thrilling sequence, one wall shows a woman driving while talking on her cellphone, and the other a man stuck behind her and growing increasingly irate. As he speeds up to swear at and pass her, the projection switches the parallel (so that if they were on either side of you they are now in front of and behind you), making the change in dynamic physical as well as visual.
While Atlas is primarily a video artist, Kruger and Walker are better known for their work in other media. For all three of them to have video installations displayed together is unprecedented. Despite their disparate aesthetics, they work surprisingly well as a whole. The specifics of each piece may not relate to those of the others — Walker’s evocations of black pain are quite different from Kruger’s meditations on relationships — but the overall thematic effect is strong. Sitting in “…calling to me…,” one can absorb its images of slave survival while words in “The Tyranny of Consciousness” about contemporary repression of African Americans echo in from the other room. Exhibited together, the three pieces’ varying concerns become a single, and difficult, conversation about modernity.
Unspeakable continues at the Hammer Museum (10899 Wilshire Blvd, Los Angeles) through May 13.
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