'Cult of the Ruin' Has a Past Tense and Present Purpose

Reinvigorating the past by bringing outmoded forms and systems into the present is the weighty theme of UC Irvine's University Art Gallery's newest exhibit, “Cult of the Ruin: Strategies of Accumulation,” and it's a show rife with postmodern pieces that speak directly to our culture of specific historical perspectives. Curated by a team of UCI students, each artist was selected based on work that would fit into and build upon Art In America critic Craig Owens' influential 1980 essay, “The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism,” which examined the artist's impulse to return to the past in order to give it contemporary value. The thesis is a heady idea for most laymen to digest, and yet, while “Ruin” is built on such depth, the resulting exhibit contains pieces that entice and inform the viewer whether he or she understands postmodern criticism or not—and that's a testament to the fine curatorial team.

Melding together artworks that at first seem disparate, the exhibit includes sculpture, light, food and video, uniting them along the common thread of the past and the desire to reinterpret, reenact and/or illuminate a moment in time. Miles Ake's Beach Boys “I Get Around” (Fade-Out) is the clearest time travel backward. Using an old TEAC reel-to-reel tape player attached to a Fender amplifier, Ake looped the 50-foot audio tape through two points of the corner of the room in which it sits, creating a very long journey for the 30 seconds of the “I get around” refrain to play. The audio snippet literally “gets around” (about every two minutes), and the imagery of this antiquated audio system mixed with the fading pop lyrics feels like a ghostly message has broken through from the past.

Outdated visual-recording techniques also make an appearance; in David Wojnarowicz's Fire In My Belly, the artist eschews digital images for grainy 8mm film excerpts that present an amalgamation of systems of violence as sport. Black-and-white glimpses of cockfights, bullfighting and Mexican-wrestling matches intercut with machine gears grinding and clicking offer a brief yet brutal look at notions of human entertainment. The scenarios themselves may have been culled from the not-too-distant past, yet Wojnarowicz's choice of film processing presents them as from a bygone era, thus allowing the viewer to remove himself from direct connection to the brutality.

Light artist Marilyn Lowey wants you to think you are literally walking into the past in Illuminating the Illuminati, in which she re-creates the stage and lighting used for Pope Benedict XVI's visit to Yonkers, New York, in 2008. It's a very odd idea for an installation, and yet, being able to stand in the papal's spotlights offers a strange Grauman's-Chinese-Theatre-cement-footprints sensation, whether one is a fan of the Vatican or not.

Brennan Gerard and Ryan Kelly also transport us through the halls of history in their video installation, Park Avenue . . . Shit; I'm Still Only In Park Avenue . . . Every Time I Think I'm Gonna Wake Up Back In the Jungle, a play on the opening lines of Apocalypse Now. The video is an exceptional split-screen trip through what appears to be a Southern gentlemen's club circa the Civil or Revolutionary War. Hallowed halls where straight, white soldiers danced with straight, white ladies are quickly taken over by a co-ed team of performance artists of various ethnicities who prance, dance and play off the décor while an elderly woman narrates the history of the site. Far from desecrating the landmark, these young people (sometimes wearing military uniforms) are more like visions of freedom and progress transported backward from the future—and while they are no doubt visions that would have scared the beejezus out of our ancestors, they are, in fact, the very results of our forefathers and mothers giving up their lives.

Breaking down the past into simple imagery is on hand in both Ping-Hsiang Chen's No-Name, a stimulating sculpture made from discarded white bottle-cap safety rings and white rubber bands that looks like a pristine camouflage covering for an Arctic reconnaissance outfit, and Katie Ammons' prehistoric ice sculptures, which could represent the items they've unearthed. Ammons' pieces, especially How It Goes, are particularly noteworthy: Large slabs and shards of ice embedded with smooth stones hang from a suspended fencepost; beneath them lays a large, white sheet of paper with a small pool of ink beneath the ice fragments. As the ice melts, each stone drops into the ink, creating a pool of swirling blackness that travels to the edges of the paper. It's primordial in feeling, as if we're standing at the beginning of time and watching our world take shape, the first historians to chronicle a series of events that will eventually lead us through every other aspect of the exhibit. And that is, indeed, a reinvigorating concept.

This review appeared in print as “Past Tense, Present Purpose.”

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