Where The Hell Are We?

Traveling into a brave new nowhere with two soap factory exhibits

There's a psychological condition called Relocation Anxiety that's caused by the transition from the familiar to the strange. I feel a bit of it as I shove myself headfirst into one of Chicago artist Huong Ngo's "escape pods," which are nestled in the Soap Factory's mossy stone grotto like a cluster of giant pterodactyl eggs. With a fan at the end and a network of Velcro at the head, the pods, made from FedEx envelopes, are designed to provide protection from hostile environments. They can also be disassembled into garments--two shirts and a skirt--which Ngo, looking like a space-age stewardess, wears as she ushers me into the pod's narrow opening. Inside, my anxiety wears off quickly, replaced by a womblike comfort. Bye-bye, outside world. I've been relocated.

Like Ngo's creations, all of the pieces in "The End of the End of the Line" (which, along with the exhibit "New Balance Frontier," runs at the Soap Factory through August 22), use transplantation and uncertainty as jumping-off points. In Traveling Nixon Museum, Las Vegas artist Jeffrey Vallance explores portability and the kitschiness of the campaign trail with a glass-faced leather valise that's chock-full of Nixon ephemera--plastic dolls, buttons, bumper stickers. Chicago collective Temporary Services has created the ultimate totables with Binder Archives, a backpack gallery containing whole artist oeuvres in three-ring binders. San Francisco collective It Can Change runs its Gypsy Cab services (see "You've Got to Play to Pay," p. 48) for five days before the exhibit, offering free taxi cab rides in exchange for artwork.

While works like Escape Pod Series conjure physical displacement from the outside world by creating a sense of safety inside the pod, the surrounding environment doesn't necessarily produce the same effect. The Soap Factory itself has been transformed, and many of the pieces within it subvert the idea of the traditional gallery environment. They push themselves into the viewer's space, forcing viewer interaction into the usual stand-and-stare art experience.

The feeling of displacement is best evoked by Dim Sum, a performance piece created by the Portland art collective Red 76. As I arrive at the gallery's loading-dock entrance, a woman ushers me to a long table and hands me an incomprehensible menu with abstract names and strange titles in place of food items. I have no idea how to order. I pick a menu item at random: "I'll have the Mumble Boy," I tell the waiter when he arrives. He returns moments later with a CD and a Discman on a tray: Mumble Boy, it turns out, is a loop-based electronic music artist; the other items in the menu represent zines, booklets, and videos. The whole experience captures the mixed reactions a Westerner might have in a Chinese restaurant. Any unfamiliar elements are exciting precisely because they're disorienting--nothing's more exciting than not knowing what happens next.

The thrill of the unknown also forms the basis for "New Balance Frontier," which configures its art within the space where cultures or ideologies meet. Many of the pieces in this exhibit highlight the unsettling juxtaposition between various opposites: nature and technology, men and women, the present and the past. California artists Mark Bradford and Jack Wilson break down gender lines in their video Practice, which features Bradford dribbling a basketball in a hoop skirt. Los Angeles artist Olga Koumoundouros's photo series "Jim and Huck's Great Adventure" shows a raft in two different environments: on a river and landlocked in the middle of the city. And with his globe-embroidered wall hanging, fellow L.A. resident Nicolau Vergueiro contrasts the beauty of what he calls "marginalia"--things that live on the edge of consciousness--with what happens at the center of the world.

The most striking work is Los Angeles artist Holly Topping's enormous painting, Me an Ostrich and a Mandrel. It's part photorealistic self-portrait, part surrealist fantasy: Topping appears front and center, rendered in a glossy '70s style. Her feathered, honey-blond hair is splayed around her, her lips are glossy, and her white halter dress and heels present a doll-like plasticity. Next to her in the inky background, seemingly oblivious to her presence, are an ostrich, neck outstretched, and a brightly hued mandrel. Perhaps their presence is a nod to the dual nature of pinup girl appeal--a hint of the ostrich's head-in-the-sand reclusiveness, balanced by the mandrel's ostentatious character.

Boston conceptualist Vaughn Bell's Personal Portable Biosphere is like Get Smart's Cone of Silence gone to seed. A plasticine half-globe containing live mosses and greenery hangs from the ceiling, intended to be worn as a kind of helmet. Put your head inside it and the sound of the city is eliminated, leaving only the heady sanctity of the forest smell. It's a placid experience; the head takes in the sensation of being alone in a dense wood, yet the body is still firmly rooted inside the gallery, separated from the natural world.

The eponymous piece from "New Balance Frontier," also by Koumoundouros, is the logical synthesis of the exhibit's central theme--a wild hybrid of human, animal, and machine. It looks like it began life as a rough-hewn raft, but Koumoundouros added metallic legs capped with New Balance tennis shoes, a pair of whimsically puffy black wheels, vinyl batwings, and a rearview mirror suspended on a stick. These disparate parts suggest multiple forms of transportation--flying, rolling, walking, floating--that Koumoundouros has combined with a certain aesthetic harmony. Despite its Frankensteinean nature, New Balance Frontier looks like it belongs; one wouldn't necessarily be surprised to find it rolling down the street outside the gallery. Parts tend to come together like that throughout "New Balance Frontier." As disparate ideas that coexist eventually blend together, this new frontier becomes a peaceful place.

 
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