The Art of Humiliation

Photo by Jack GouldSince the Laguna Art Museum and the Orange County Museum of Art painfully divorced after their ill-starred merger some years ago, it has seemed as if the two museums swapped bodies. It was just like one of those once-ubiquitous movies, which I believe all starred Kirk Cameron, where the father becomes the son and, you know, vice versa. OCMA, which in the '80s had pretensions of becoming a world-class host of contemporary exhibitions, has instead morphed into a venue for traveling Smithsonian shows and Laguna Impressionism. LAM, which was founded by Laguna Impressionists, has spiffed itself up into a thriving center for subversives and lowbrow artists. It's the oddest thing.

Now that trend has been flipped on its head again. Who's lowbrow now? Korean schoolgirls cavorting in slo-mo? A soundtrack featuring top hits of the '70s and '80s? You, singing karaoke? As art?!? The Orange County Museum of Art has the grooviest, most subversive playthings since Chris Burden's war toys took over an entire gallery. In fact, come to think of it, they're far groovier and more subversive. I don't care if Burden did have himself shot!

Korean artist Lee Bul's "Live Forever" is smashing. Three Corvette-shaped pods in white fiberglass (two are functional; one is just for drooling over) are decked out with padded-leather interiors. The two functional pods lie on the floor in the video gallery (the third stands outside the door, beckoning people in), their hatches raised so you can step inside and recline. Yes, individual karaoke pods. Nor is this a cheap version of the five-minutes-from-now future. It's posh. Forget the padded leather: the song list (from which you choose by touching a console) is laminated, professional-like. The headphones have a lush reverb, like a tiny little studio producer in your head, to mask your many (many) vocal mistakes. A flat monitor inside shows the video to which you're caterwauling—a video that's also projected on the high gallery wall, which you can see from your pod's tinted windows so you won't get claustrophobic in your little womb of song.

Did I mention there are Korean schoolgirls, and they're cavorting in a forest?

Sure, the exhibit raises all kinds of provocative Art Questions. (If it's fun, is it still good for you? Are you in public, or are you in private? Did those meditation booths so popular in quacks' offices in the '80s actually have therapeutic value? Blah, blah, blah.) But aren't you really more interested in the Korean schoolgirls?

Me, too!

Lee Bul sees the power in being objectified (and yet untouchable), and she enjoys every second of it. Oh, I could be wrong. Her frolicking, winsome teens projected on the wall behind as well as in the pods could be an ironic mockery of the slo-mo male gaze. And monkeys could fly out of my butt!

Whatever it is, it's all in fun; if Lee is mocking the male gaze or the stereotype of Asian women as geisha girls put on Earth for man's pleasure, she's doing it gently and affectionately. And gleefully.

So are they toys or art? They're both, which is going to be a problem for those Serious Art Types who just want to be bitter. Also, if the pods are anything like those '80s meditation booths, then those booths were worth every cent for which your therapist billed your gullible insurance company. Following a diet of "You're So Vain," "Nothing Compares 2 U" and "Like a Prayer," I came out of my pod feeling as fresh as a newborn foal.

Of course, when I emerged, there was a small group of people standing around the entrance to the darkened gallery, pointing and laughing. Here's where that public vs. private thing comes in: the pods are so sensationally and plushly designed one just assumes they're soundproof. Oh, they are not. And the lush echo in the headphones is not audible to the listeners outside; there ain't nothing tarting up your performance for their ears. It's a moment of exquisite humiliation, even if in your heart, you still think you sounded pretty damn good.

"Live Forever" at the Orange County Museum of Art, 850 San Clemente Dr., Newport Beach, (949) 759-1122; Through April 28. Open Tues.-Sun., 11 a.m.-5 p.m. $4-$5; kids under 16, free; free on Tues.


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