Domestic Disturbances

As we all know, the world's a wild and crazy place these days. Technology is running amok, for one thing. Whole cultures are being assimilated, marginalized, or pretty much decimated, with political borders and alliances as mere lines in the sand. The very idea of history, constantly being re-examined, re-written, re-lived, is no more stable. And let's not even get started about the millennium.

Of course, these same phenomena are also playing out in the art world; thus the Walker's no place (like home). Using work from eight artists of varying international backgrounds, curator Richard Flood has attempted to get his hands around a pretty big idea. Yet paradoxically, the show--unlike his "Brilliant!" New Art from London, which wedged 22 artists' work into the same three galleries--seems strangely hollow. Given the spare, frosty atmosphere and the lack of benches or seats, if there were a place like home, it wouldn't be here.

The closest thing to a domestic dwelling is Meyer Vaisman's "Green on the Outside/Red on the Inside," a doorless, windowless shanty. The only view inside is through peepholes that look into an odd, middle-class scene: a hallway with a mirror and closets that was actually lifted from the home of Vaisman's parents, who migrated to Caracas, Venezuela from Eastern Europe. Asking viewers to become voyeurs is a sure-fire method of seduction, and there is something jarring about wrapping a bourgeois interior in a shanty shell, though Vaisman lost me with the idea of framing the peepholes with casts of pelvic bones. On top of the class conflict and voyeurism, he indulges an observation about the similarity between Venezuelan shanties and a type of Minnesotan architecture, dubbing this construction of the installation the "Minnesota Ice Fishin' House version."

Sharing a dimly lit gallery with Vaisman's shanty are six Cibachrome transparencies in light boxes from Zarina Bhimji, oddly installed so that they face each other across the full expanse of the gallery. Given confounding, all-lower-case titles, these images feel like their creator's own ideas have been obscured by a tangle of pomo theory: Here are three octopii spread across what looks like a fake alligator skin ("a woman with loose guts in her hands"); here's a gruesome pair of disembodied feet from a pathology museum, submerged in a tank of formaldehyde ("the terror was so strong"). One work, however, "pleasure deferred," is thoroughly arresting. Drenched in the same dreamy blue as a Joseph Cornell box, its image of two tree-like tangles of steel wool on a buckled sheet of paper is intimate and expansive at the same time, a kind of inner landscape.

The show's other photographer is Willie Doherty, whose images are devoid of people, yet charged with the physical and psychological residue of the war in and around his hometown of Derry, Northern Ireland. Despite the lush color and high-gloss format, a dark-purplish tone gives them a vaguely sinister pall. "No Smoke Without Fire," a video projected larger-than-life-sized onto a wall, offers a dizzying, eerie, and vicarious experience of tramping or crawling through a field at night, searching endlessly for something unknown.

Nick Deocampo, who's survived three regimes in the Philippines, is another artist documenting the ongoing upheaval in his country. It seems strange to include a single filmmaker among visual artists, but if anyone comes close to describing the breadth and complexity of no place (like home), it's Deocampo. Unlike Doherty's depopulated landscapes, Deocampo's films are painfully intimate portraits of people trying to eke out an existence in a country where hopelessness is the norm, and are often intercut with fantastical, metaphoric vignettes. The Sex Warriors and the Samurai shows Joan, a transvestite dancer and prostitute, working to become a "human export" to Japan, which, like the U.S. is to Mexico, is seen as a place where Filipinos can make enough money to support their destitute families back home.

Cultural displacement also figures strongly in the work of South African artist Kay Hassan. In "Urban Cocktail," one of his mural collages, he ingeniously transform scraps from billboards into large-scale portraits of local life--in this case, a series of people clustered around tables and mugs of beer. Moving from left to right, the fiery reds and oranges deepen into blue-black, from the heat of the day into nighttime and dark bar interiors. Hassan's "Esiphothini (Shebeen)" is a meticulously detailed installation that replicates a shebeen, a kind of domestic speakeasy. Visitors are welcome to lounge around in this dark, smoky-smelling room, listening to South African pop, counting empty beer bottles, and remarking on the overflowing ashtrays. But why have art patrons observing a party whose only other "participants" are the voices of revelers on a soundtrack? This installation, along with Hassan's re-creation of a migrant worker's shack, may document a way of life for marginalized people, but like the sumptuous period rooms in historical museums, they're ultimately more conservatively didactic than artistic.

By contrast, Kara Walker's cyclorama installation, newly created for the show, is about as prickly as art gets. This self-described "free Negress of noteworthy talent" has made a name for herself in the past three years by twisting 19th-century conventions to her own ambiguous, but clearly politically incorrect ends. Using Old South stereotypes depicted with silhouettes cut from black paper, she creates tales that are both saucy and savage, full of murder and sex, barfing and farts, spurting bodily fluids, and all manner of other malicious mischief. Traditional master/slave and victim/victimizer roles do not apply in her installations, which are riveting in the same way as a car crash, seducing people with horrifying things they claim they don't want to know.

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