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Thursday, Jan. 24, 2008

Place, Ritual and Memory

Art Review

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Cultural identity forms at the confluence of place, ritual and memory. A new exhibition at MIAD titled “This Land is My Land” explores the physical or social boundaries erected to preserve or undermine that identity. Tom Jones explores the displacement of an entire people scattered to the margins of society. His photographs show American-Indian culture trivialized until it’s nothing more than a motif adorning a gaudy commercial product. In Soda Totem a brightly painted totem pole stands before two soda vending machines. Rising from a slab of concrete, it appears dislocated and obsolete, its ritual purpose reduced to nothing more than a visual prop. The same is true of Putt Putt Totem. Here the totem pole cowers furtively in the margins of the space it occupies, its muddy colors mixing into its earthy surroundings.

Adam Davis and Jenny Price turn their attention to members of society marginalized because of sexual orientation or vocation. The latter focuses on prostitutes through a series of unmemorable photographs accompanied by an only slightly more remarkable voice recording of Price’s subjects. Davis’ name for his video installation, PAL, is as misleadingly innocuous as the gum-colored box with the lettersized aperture through which we watch his film. It shows two men, faces inches apart, sharing a piece of gum and blowing bubbles that transgress the physical boundary the two clearly long to cross. The viewer is both voyeur and silent judge, presiding over a mounting tension that is never allowed to climax. Douglas Rosenberg attempts to dissolve the racial, social and generational boundaries between his subjects. A set of digital prints titled Where is My? show a human X-ray image with captions beneath asking “Where is My Jewish,” “Where is My Dysfunction” and so on. Despite his laudable intentions, the piece is somewhat simplistic, resembling a slick advertising campaign. The same is true of his projected videos running simultaneously in an adjoining room. These consist of people of different races and age groups moving in unison and performing physical rituals. Though sometimes lovely, with bodies unfurling and swaying much like the elements of nature that punctuate the piece, they appear contrived, like a campaign to heighten awareness of osteoporosis or other ailments.

What receives less attention in the exhibit is the physical act of ownership and its significance. This is partly addressed by Bill Basquin’s photographs of organically grown food products. There’s something deliciously feral in his image of fingerling potatoes and an asparagus blindly thrusting its head out of the earth. Their fleshy tones contrast with images of intensely colored jars of honey or bowls of brightly colored vegetables.

The vivid close-up images embody the awesome mystery of the earth bearing the fruits of our toil. Amy Chaloupka’s hand-cut map of meandering rivers and lakes transcends state boundaries and instead gives precedence to the physical connections between places. However, it’s Paula Levine’s Shadows From Another Placethat offers the most compelling dissolution of boundaries, not least because it’s displayed on the Internet and is therefore globally accessible. Using GPS mapping, Levine superimposes the physical impact of events taking place in Baghdad onto a map of San Francisco. By bringing the physical conditions of a foreign country to our very own doorstep, she underlines the link between empathy and shared experience.

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