Courtesy Orange County Museum of ArtWe're too often confronted by misused remnants of our childhood. You've seen them out there, I'm sure, in wordless snatches of silk-screened innuendo. To recognize them is to be granted membership to a Marxian (i.e., Groucho) club borne of shared yet separate experience. It's memory as icon, as kitsch, as inside joke. My blood runs cold; my memory has just been sold . . . as a T-shirt, bare across the breast but for a single, jagged Space Invader. I can't help but feel a twinge of proprietary nausea at the ripening of my own into unabashed, yet wholly ironic, merchandising. Did our parents ever sport shirts emblazoned with, say, a Hula-Hoop or an unlabeled, saucer-eyed Clarabelle the Clown?
Inasmuch as a reference to an object is not the object itself, one may wonder what connection actually remains between my generation and its blighted, beloved toys. Can we blend and remake our influences, churning them like so much concrete upon which to build the next cultural touchstones? Or are we simply nostalgiacs, no better than those who swapped their be-ins for Gordon Gekko's giant proto cell phone? Yucef Merhi, the Venezuela-born and NYC-dwelling poet, also cut his teeth in the digital age, wherein eight (bits) was more than enough of a spark to develop his nascent interests in language and technology. His works evince an eye/ear for a synthesis of the two, something other, yet something more than the meeting of simple and old with sample and hold.
In a certain sense it's fitting that Merhi's exhibit, "Poetic Engineering," is showing at a storefront-cum-gallery space located in an upscale shopping center. The walls of the Orange Lounge at South Coast Plaza house the artist's explorations of "the bond between natural languages . . . and programming languages." Each piece in the exhibit passes Merhi's necessarily shifting and ephemeral verses through electronic devices that were each once a stop on the bullet train route marked cutting-edge. I can't help but picture the exhibit's component parts in the selfsame building, but for sale as the latest means of delivering prepackaged entertainment rather than for the artist's sideways purposes.
Far from imparting a sterility to his poetry, Merhi's use of technology allows an element of process to enter the frame, be it his own or that of the viewer. Upon entering the gallery, the eye is immediately drawn to a wall-mounted monitor displaying three verses—"Adopt my orphan heart/Filtering death through mirrors of sand/Destroyed by dangerous words," for example—and a digital readout of the current time to the second. With every click, the third verse changes to another stored in a database, to another, to another; the middle verse, every minute; the first, every hour. According to the gallery notes (as well as my fading grasp of simple math), ThePoeticClock2.0(2002) generates 86K+ poems per day. How many of these one can digest in a sitting is largely a function of attention span; however, its central presence in both rooms of the gallery renders it a sort of digital sorbet between the viewings of other works.
The exhibit also includes pieces that depend on human interaction for their realization. Hung from wall hooks are the surviving four of seven original pieces of PoeticWords(2002). Grab one by the handle and activate it according to the instructions, and a small row of LEDs begins flashing inscrutably. Now rotate it in your hand with small, circular motions, like a vertical jump rope. Suddenly, magically, the diodes spell out an intriguing, two-headed phrase whose meaning is best left to personal interpretation. In an opposite corner of the darkened space lurks the tripartite SuperAtariPoetry(2005), which includes a trio of beanbag chairs for the total transplanted basement simulation, minus the wood paneling. This work is a development of Merhi's earliest attempts at merging programming language with an organic language, resulting in a viewer-determined arrangement of his verses.
The Atari 2600, whose joystick and single button controls feel both unbelievably quaint and soothingly inviting, begs you to explore the artist's words in a colorful, monospaced font, and the crappy, Reagan-era televisions only serve to heighten the experience.
"Poetic Engineering," at the OCMA's Orange Lounge at South Coast Plaza, 3333 Bear St., #303, Costa Mesa, (949) 759-1122. Through Aug. 28.