Young artists are forgetting that bigger isn't always better. Currently, at Cranbrook Art Museum and the Center for Creative Studies, galleries and corridors are cramped with space-hogging installations, welcoming the public into a world of ghettoized and glamorized kitsch. You can sit in a small wooden chapel and watch an artist act like a hick preacher or sneak a peek inside a La-Z-Boy'ed living room, covered in the asbestos-looking dust of pulverized Cheetos. Snap a shot in a photo booth or marvel at a pile of trash. Installation art can be a cop-out for some, a way to make a boring idea seem grand by relying on high drama for a distraction.
But let's face it, the decision to make and to show installation art can also be a brave one. I haven't seen the show yet, but the guys running the new RichRichRich gallery in Shelby Township recent grads Nolan Simon, Ed Brown and Mike Smith sure as hell won't be selling anything from their inaugural exhibit, a site-specific installation featuring fast-food wrappers and blue Kmart coolers.
Manufactured environments are often created by artists who get lucrative grants and are relegated to showings in institutions that don't need to cash checks from collectors. Needless to say, you don't see a whole lot of that kind of stuff in galleries. To look around town right now, the scene is pretty straightforward painting, sculpture and photography take up a lot of wall and floor space. But it's a whole other story across the water in Windsor.
At Artcite Inc., black curtains on the front windows conceal an electronic water world inside. Halifax, Nova Scotia, artist Robyn Moody presents Still, a manufactured ecosystem for water regeneration. A control center with sensors and circuits sends water cycling through catch-basins, tea kettles, PVC tubing, fans and buckets for distillation and condensation that keeps six goldfish swimming happily in their home base. Moody's mixed-media installation is a quietly alive universe that whispers and whirls. The gallery is lit by the soft glow of spotlights that dot the floor and distant flecks of red and green blinking from Moody's motherboard in the middle of the room. Black and red wires spread like tentacles across the floor.
About his construction, the artist says, "With a rising awareness of the delicate balance of the environment, but with a reluctance on the part of some governments and industry to respect this balance, Still becomes like a giant iron lung, a survival tool for the six goldfish." Unfortunately, Artcite Inc. received visits from government officials, ordering them politely to disable the exhibit because of fire hazards, but you can still see the contraption while it's shut off through June 17.
Two shows at Art Gallery of Windsor play inventively with sights and sounds that fill the gallery's huge space. Thinkbox is a collective of artists from Windsor and Detroit who collaborate on projects to question the influence of technology on culture. For the most part, their current show, Thinkbox: Archive, is underwhelming. Electronic sound compositions feature your typical digital hiccups and burps, underscored by that trademark minimalist whirring poured like ice water in your eardrums. There's also faux advertising that prizes the presentation over concept and quality, being very disrespectful to the photographic medium. But there are two strong reasons to check out this show: impressive video installations by artists Mark Laliberte and Chris McNamara.
Laliberte presents "(((wwww)))," an invasive and disorienting video environment. In a walled-off room, you sit a few feet in front of an oversized screen that projects illustrated stills of distant city scenes, digitally sketched in what I can only think to describe as naive pixelation. The shots of anonymous high rises and corporate headquarters pulse at about 10 images per second, just enough time for you to begin making sense of your solitary perspective and then adjust again to a new one. Laliberte also supplies a dinning sound track to make you feel even more isolated from the rest of the world.
McNamara's "Establishing Shots" is a beautiful video montage of mundane sites, including Detroit, narrated in a number of foreign languages, and set to soft noise compositions. The video, through words and images, simply and intimately connects you to strangers. It is McNamara's recognition of a meditative pause, in life and in art, that gives his work meaning. One shot shows a close-up of a child's swing drifting in the wind. The English subtitle reads: "To explain this would be to undo it."
On another floor, Winnipeg-based Ken Gregory's art, featured in a couple of rooms, reaches out and touches you. Cheap Meat Dreams and Acorns is an interactive exhibit of audio art installations and sound sculptures, rigged with motion sensors and relying on microprocessors, so found objects that smell like old wood are animate. Gregory relies on electronic, mechanical and digital methods to create original objects that communicate through action. He humanizes his small sculptures with witty personality; they giggle, hop and walk up walls. Sometimes they produce sonic explosions or play pretty sounds if you get too close. (It should be noted that local musician Frank Pahl outdoes Gregory with his homemade instruments that are at least as complex, and play beautiful and winsome melodic collages.)
Gregory is full of surprises. In a phonograph, he implants a small screen that presents a digital video of a crooning mouth. In another corner, open the door to an icebox, and there's a travel-size television playing porn. Walk into a small room of 12 motorized bells and listen to their songs fly. Downstairs, in another well-lit corner, Gregory has created what he calls an "alternative species" but is really two knotty tree branches covered in small solar panels that chirp at each other as long as there's light shining.
At Artcite and Art Gallery of Windsor, installations and environments attack your eyes and ears, and twist the way you see the world. These artists don't just stage scenes, their work serves a purpose; their installations don't simulate reality, they offer alternatives to it. It's sort of a shame that it can't be bought.
Still runs through June 17 at Artcite, Inc. (109 University Ave. W., Windsor; 519-977-6564). Thinkbox: Archive runs through July 30 and Cheap Meat Dreams and Acorns: Ken Gregory runs through June 11 at Art Gallery of Windsor (401 Riverside Dr. W., Windsor; 519-977-0013).Rebecca Mazzei is Metro Times arts editor. Send comments to [email protected]