Tuesday, May 05, 2009

James Cohan Gallery

Last week Xiaoxia and I spent an absurd amount of time trying to find Stephen the Spectacular at ddmwarehouse, failed, but did manage to see the exhibition at the James Cohan gallery. Featuring works by Xu Zhen, Bill Viola, Nam June Paik, and Anselm Kiefer, Matters of Faith is a small but surprisingly enjoyable exhibition (although it took me a while to figure out that the creepy, giant monkey guarding the bathroom wasn't actually part of this show).

The painted palm leaves didn't manage to engage me at all, and Xu Zhen's model of the Potala Palace built from thousands of miniature playing cards seemed like it was tedious to build but not overly innovative, but I particularly enjoyed the two video art installations. Nam June Paik's Enlightenment Compressed presented a small bronze Buddha watching its own live image displayed on a television screen a few inches in front of it. At first whimsically comical (Buddha seeking enlightenment by contemplating his own image, and on a TV screen, no less), but gradually encountering the layers of meaning, I wondered whether this Buddha was meditating, or merely in a mindless trance. And what about my own childhood, mostly spent inches away from a similar TV? Was Sesame Street really just a vehicle to reaching nirvana? Something tells me no.

Finally, Bill Viola's video featured two women, initially obscured by wierd fuzz. As they approaced the viewer, their forms passed through a grey veil of water before emerging into a world of clarity and color. Upon reaching this world (our world?), a mix of apprehension, outright fear, longing, and hope flashed across their faces. Ultimately, either defeated or disappointed, one woman seemed unable to bear the sight of the new world she had discovered, and fled back through the sheet of water into shades of grey; her companion, after a final warm glance, allowed herself to be pulled back through as well. I found this work to be the most engaging, and I enjoyed hypothesizing what lay on each side of the veil: knowledge and ignorance? order and chaos? Or maybe it was just a room full of monkeys, and the grey-haired lady had a bad childhood experience.

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