Yucef Merhi wanted the hell out. New York City in the latter part of September 2001 was not fun, not happy, not good in any way at all really, unless you're an evangelical who lights up like Vegas at any suggestion that the End Times are near. But Merhi is no evangelical, and the End Times held little appeal. So what was an artist (whom, for the purpose of this anecdote, I like to imagine starving in an icy garret, except I don't think people who have shows booked two years in advance starve in icy garrets) supposed to do?
It took Merhi only one call to Dora at Laguna Beach's 7. "When do you want to come?" she asked him.
"Tomorrow morning," he replied. And he did.
Soon Merhi was snugly ensconced in one of 7's posh-and-schmancy two-story artist studios, where the artists drink juice frapped in immaculately sleek blenders and pad gingerly on naturally harvested koa-wood floors. Then they spend their leisure time—and all their time is leisure—cycling down to the boardwalk, where they get drunk, watch the sunset and mock the stupid people who are not artists and have not yet figured out how to get free rent at a really cool artists' retreat. The faithful reader of this column already knows the drill: all the artists do in return for their digs is let various and sundry pharmaceutical execs (who flock to 7 for various and sundry mucho expensivo company parties) watch them create in glass-walled studios, like monkeys in an artists' zoo. Hey, you wouldn't catch me kvetching.
Merhi's art is everything it's supposed to be—vivid, arresting, fun. It's supremely technological, the better to show off 7's flashy and envy-inducing high-tech setup, which is all recessed, automated projection screens and perfectly coiled hidden cables and spaceship lighting and flat-screen TVs. It flirts with edginess and sauciness without offending anyone—or really challenging them either. It's Play Art. As Joseph Maschek snarled in Art Forum in 1971, "[T]he prospect of hip, young dropout types hanging out in Venice, California, making fancy baubles for the rich, amuses us." Except now it's New York artists making their baubles and only jetting off to California when life is too much to bear.
Now, perhaps this sounds o'erweeningly negative. In fact, Merhi's work, as seen in "WizArT" or at www.wizart.org, is as intricate and well-planned as an Irvine subdivision, though with lots more Spanish being spoken. His major piece, in the main "gallery" (where the well-catered affairs hold themselves), is an interactive gewgaw that beams down from the large screens to the person wielding the pedestalled mouse below. The Hebrew alphabet scrolls across the bottom of the screen; click on a letter, and a seemingly endless array of delights awaits. One letter has a game: dress the nude paper doll (unfortunately, if you adorn her with the huge pair of knockers offered as an option, none of the blouses fit—just like life!). Another has a vintage film of the author's first steps, chasing pigeons to a techno beat. A third rumbles with a heartbeat and Spanish poetry. One bit has poetry that scrolls too fast to be read; this, like everything else about the piece, is intentional—you're supposed to be frustrated. And some letters are booby trapped. (Speaking of booby traps, if you decide to access the piece via the website, don't have too many other applications running.)
You could play and play, clicking here and there as the beats change and the pictures change and the languages change, and it's sensory overload like a rave or a dose of E.
There's a sense that despite the intensely personal nature of many of the offerings and the thought that went into them, it's all only a game. And is that good enough?
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But step into the front gallery, and Atari Poetry reigns. There, identical televisions flash the same bars of primitive, lo-fi rainbow stripes (somewhat akin to the bands of color on the early Atari game Breakout) while a small window of black flashes bits of poetry in block letters. Bits and pieces are all one sees at a time, and though you know instantly to what they're alluding—"devastated by the flames" . . . "divine anger" . . . "opening the doors of"—it's hard to focus on just one long enough to see the trajectory of the entire poem. (It's even harder when one of your party pulls the cartridge from the Atari deck, and the screens go blank. We didn't realize the interactive exhibit was in a whole 'nother room.)
And then one realizes how entirely appropriate it is. We don't need entire poems anymore. We can make do with bits and soundbites—and are probably happier for it. We can read five different scrolling bars on CNN at once. Give us a fragment, and we can fill in what we need to know or a facsimile thereof. Simply, we can multitask.
And Merhi wants us to—though perhaps he doesn't want us to go about pulling his artworks apart. I doubt he would be offended if people were clicking maniacally through the Hebrew alphabet, rarely pausing to contemplate. It's a light-speed world now, except in Oklahoma, where lunch takes three days to eat. And we can play our games and zip through snippets of art at MTV speed and read only pieces of poems as our retinas struggle to keep up. And we can play, or we can mourn, or we can fear. And each is equally right.
"WizArT" at 7, 891 Laguna Canyon Rd., Laguna Beach, (949) 376-1555. Through Jan. 20. Open Mon.-Fri., 11 a.m.-6 p.m.; Sat., 11 a.m.-3 p.m.; Sun. by appt. Free.