I’m standing at the edge of the second floor of Orange County Museum of Art’s temporary space in South Coast Plaza Village. At the top of the staircase, I’m holding a cheap plaster reproduction of an old map of Europe. A dozen people are watching me. “Count off,” says the jacketed docent, who has cleared the path.
“Like a ‘10-9-8’ kind of count off?” I ask.
“Yes,” she replies.
“Okay . . . 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1.”
I let go.
The chalk-white representation of a long-gone World Order plummets to the floor, smashing against a pile of plaster maps others have already dropped. It shatters with a BOOM that echoes through the gallery.
I silently thank Vietnamese artist UuDam Tran Nguyen for his dense art installation “TIME BOOMERANG California Edition—From S.E.A. Sea Atolls to the Next Dead Stars,” wipe the white dust off my hands and scribble a few lines in my notebook.
Nguyen’s mouthful of a title is as complex as the exhibition, and as with any thoughtful work, it takes a few minutes to put things together. Starting with the idea that a child uses his hand to measure things—and the image of a land grab is the perfect childish symbol for an empire—the artist has cast his hand, then cut off the tips of all five fingers. Those sculpted fingertips will be dropped into bodies of water bordering five of the continents, as a performative way to reclaim territory. It’s essentially a nonsense gesture, but just as with many useless things signifying hope, he persists in doing it anyway. A digitally printed version of the artist’s skeleton, laid out in a circle on the gallery floor, seconds the idea: Indigenous people would often bury bones in the territory they wished to claim. (We still do a version of the same, of course, but now it’s via the blood and corpses of our war dead. That the artist comes from a country the U.S. once invaded is certainly no coincidence.)
Nguyen’s humanist intent and step-by-step process from foundry to ocean are laid out clearly in the helpful curation notes, aided by several videos that can also be found online. Make sure to read them, and then join in on the overthrow of an empire.
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The politic collage work of Los Angeles artist York Chang’s solo show “To Be Wrong With Infinite Precision” is sometimes framed, sometimes mounted, the blown-up black-and-white and color pictures liberated and remixed from newspapers, juxtaposed against one another, with added words trimmed from headlines. Less interested in creating new images than in provoking obvious associations between composites, Chang’s work is a fairly basic lesson in punk collage 101: An image of a young boy throwing a baseball is pasted over the corner of a black-and-white still of riot police ready to go to battle (The Pick-up); the Pope, hands outstretched, blessing children, is placed opposite three guys in suits, hands raised, about to testify in a court proceeding, the pictures linking the Church’s pedophile problems with the resultant legal troubles (Common Knowledge); and Civilian (Factograph) is a picture of protesters scuffling with a policeman as news cameras hover over the incident like vultures. Set opposite a still of Russian dancers, there’s the suggestion it’s all just a performance, its title playing off the similarity of the words civilian and civilized.
The most interesting piece to me was actually an anti-collage, Forensic III, intriguing precisely for what it takes pains not to show: The 72 Polaroids are reversed so that we see just the backsides of the prints, solid lines of black with white borders, resembling a page from the redacted Mueller Report.
Chang’s thoughtful work ponders the ways that images conflict with headlines and vice versa, how both are used to manipulate and misdirect; he is attempting to disarm them—or at least turn them on their head—by reusing them within a different context. The problem—and I liked the exhibition a great deal—is that the work falls back on the most obvious of associations. Given the unadorned way Chang designs his work, it’s unlikely he’ll be opening up a new world to you or even challenging your perceptions. If we’re smart enough to “get” it—and I include myself here—then we can smugly pat ourselves on the back that the left-leaning political statements are in line with our own thoughts. In this day and age, I’m uncertain that something that simply confirms what we already believe is a good thing. Shouldn’t we be asking for a little bit more from our art?
“UuDam Tran Nguyen: TIME BOOMERANG California Edition—From S.E.A. Sea Atolls to the Next Dead Stars” and “York Chang: To Be Wrong With Infinite Precision” at the Orange County Museum of Art, 1661 W. Sunflower Ave., Santa Ana, (714) 780-2130; www.ocmaexpand.org. Open Thurs., 11 a.m.-8 p.m.; Fri.-Sun., 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Through Sept. 1. Free.
Dave Barton has written for the OC Weekly for over twenty years, the last eight as their lead art critic. He has interviewed artists from punk rock photographer Edward Colver to monologist Mike Daisey, playwright Joe Penhall to culture jammer Ron English.