Paradise by the Plasma Light

Kutlug Atamans American dreams dont always play so well on the screen

Twenty-four Panasonic widescreen TVs, in two concentric circles, with one set dead in the center. On each screen is a talking head, but the only one audible is the centerpiece, which changes daily. For each of the other screens, a stool and a headset are provided so that one may sit and listen at will. The subject is, loosely, Orange County, but the concept is Paradise—the myth, the reality, and the degree to which people are successful at attaining it in a place that is often promoted to the rest of the world as a land of dreams.

Artist Kutlug Ataman knows a thing or two about seeking the dream, having been a political prisoner in his native Turkey who escaped to Southern California in 1981. But it may be that the concept is too broad, too abstract to capture in an exhibit of this kind. It's clear how evangelist Robert Schuller, one of the 24 subjects, relates to paradise—it's a key part of the Gospel he preaches, and the God he tries to glorify at the Crystal Cathedral. Similarly, the New Agey woman who talks about her soul time-traveling to Atlantis. On a more concrete level, there are those who talk about the land itself as a more tangible form of paradise: the Minutemen leader, for example, who fears that unchecked illegal immigration will despoil the land he loves. Then there are big dreamers, like the teenage girl who longs for the fame of her idol, Barbra Streisand. But when the theme is expanded to simply include people who are happy with their jobs—a wedding planner, an actor in Laguna Beach's Pageant of the Masters, and the world's oldest professional party clown—the connection becomes more tenuous. The clown and the tableaux performer are arguably the possessors of unique dreams that few choose to follow, but a wedding planner? And what do the two kids talking about cars have to do with anything?

There are some fascinating individual stories here, like that of the mother who teaches sign language to infants. And Ataman is clearly a skilled interviewer who gets his subjects to talk at length without much prodding. The question, though, is whether the exhibit as a whole transcends the sum of its parts—and not only does it not, but it's almost counterproductive to them. There simply isn't time to sit in front of every monitor to hear everyone's story in full, and one isn't even supposed to. In the program, Ataman says the idea is "to listen a little bit to this and then you walk to the next one. . . . What you are doing is non-linear editing. And you walk out with your own version."

But if this were a movie necessitating one's own editing process, it might be nice to have an option to redo the cinematography as well. Many of the interviews feature harshly overexposed backgrounds, and with some obvious exceptions, like the clown, few of the images stand out enough to attract the eye—the production stills in the show's catalog are more beautiful than any screen-grab would be (and Ataman's no neophyte; he directed the acclaimed German feature Lola and Billy the Kid). If this exhibition were a movie, it would be America's Heart and Soul, the disappointing 2004 Disney feature that combined all-too-brief snippets of various notable American lives, interspersed with stock footage. That film also spotlighted 24 people, possibly one for each hour of the day, or each frame of film projected in a second.

And the seats here are so close to the screens that when the viewer does sit down to engage with a screen, the speaker's face is so close to your own that all its blemishes become clear. Is this a statement about the flaws of the American dream? Maybe. Seems more like bad spacial arrangement, though.

But speaking of flaws . . . If we are to take the exhibition as a reflection of Orange County, realistically or as a place of dreams, where's the diversity? Aside from one dark-skinned Israeli woman, everyone appears to be white, and with only four exceptions, everyone looks middle-aged or older. Do people in their twenties and thirties simply have no faith in the dream any more? Aren't there any Latinos in Orange County? Despite the way Ataman praises the "melting pot" concept, he doesn't seem to have taken it in.

Were Ataman to make a documentary feature spotlighting maybe four or five of these people, it would probably be worth watching. But as a collective exhibit held together with the vaguest of concepts, it actually seems to devalue the individuals at the expense of a pick-and-choose sensibility. And if you're at OCMA already, there are more interesting things to choose from; when there's a big diorama of toy soldiers fighting Japanese robots next door, who has the time to sit in front of TV sets for hours?

Paradise at Orange County Museum of Art, 850 San Clemente Dr., Newport Beach, (949) 759-1122; www.ocma.net. open Wed.-Sun., 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Through June 3. $8-$10; Thursdays free.

 
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