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Thursday, July 30, 2009

Twelve Tales in Another Town: The First Tale (The Mad Woman Across the Street)


My brother, me, mother, sister beside our Ford Fairlane 500

As a child I lived in a small Iowa town, population 400, named Newhall, in honor—evidently—of its largest structure. My father began his career there as the basketball coach, was quickly promoted to the principal of the school, and within a year or two of our arrival, became the Superintendent of Schools.

In small towns everyone is strange, since everyone knows everyone so well but not, evidently, enough. It’s that space between knowing and not knowing which is at the heart of events in such towns. And there are so many events, ultimately, that you realize very quickly that not knowing people is what knowing people is all about. Living in a town where you know nearly everyone around you, you quickly comprehend that no one can ever be known very well. So confusion sets in, and in that confusion you try to explain to yourself what is the difference between knowing someone and not. Perhaps you can fill that gap between not knowing and wanting to with what you imagine is really there to be known. And that is at the heart of gossip, at first a friendly act and, later—when the not knowing persists—an act of malice for not being able to know about one so close. This is always how love and desire quickly turn into fear and hate.

The lady across the street was a very nice woman, an elderly woman living in what seemed to my childish eyes a mansion—in reality just a two-storey house. When my parents needed a babysitter on those two or three nights a year they determined to celebrate the fact that they were a married couple still in love, it was she to whom they turned. And it was Mrs. Heffner to whom we awoke, accordingly, when my mother—so our sitter proclaimed—had gone to the hospital to pick up my new baby sister. I knew better, that my mother had gone to “have” my sister—even if I didn’t know what “having” meant—so I kept quiet about the old woman’s mistake. Besides my brother was too young to know anything!

In all the years we knew her, my parents expressed an opinion of her life only twice. The first time was the morning her brother, with whom she lived, came out of the house and sat under the tree in the front yard on a Sunday morning dressed only in his pajamas. He often sat upon her porch, gently rocking in the swing, so I found nothing at all out of the ordinary in his pleasure. I knew, however, that, had I attempted to find such enjoyment in our front yard, my parents would have made me dress for the occasion. “Why doesn’t she do something about him?” my mother asked of no one in particular.

Occasionally Mrs. Heffner was visited by her sister, but nothing was ever said about this sibling, even though she was far stranger, to my way of thinking, than Mrs. Heffner’s brother. One time when I was playing about the “mansion,” Mrs. Heffner invited me in for lemonade. The moment I took a sip, her sister began to shout: “Where’s that damn bread man? Why hasn’t he come? Where has he gotten to, I wonder? That lazy ass.”

I had never heard anyone swear at a bread man; I had never heard anyone swear. Just as importantly, I had never seen a bread man and never known one to visit our town. What was a bread man? I wondered. Upon my asking my parents, they explained that a bread man was a man who used to deliver bread. “But nowadays we buy bread in the grocery store,” my mother consolingly spoke. “Mrs. Heffner’s sister is a not a well woman,” she added. “She lives in an institution.”

“Oh,” I responded. For I knew what that meant. My grandfather’s daughter by his first marriage had lived in an institution too.

“They should send her brother there as well,” my father chimed in.

“Poor Mrs. Heffner,” my mother ended their talk.

As I have reported, Mrs. Heffner herself was very nice, so different from the man next door to her, who often shouted at us children when we passed his place and one time killed a giant black snake, the body of which he displayed for weeks in his front yard. No one would go near his house.

Indeed, “nice-ness” is an important commodity in small towns, as it stands for everything from “minding your own business” to being kind and generous to your neighbors, the second representing the behavior of the Gertsons, the childless couple next door to our house.

One day they told me they were planning to mix some cement, so I should come by and play in the sand before they used it up.

A few days previous I had been so bored I had complained to my mother, who, as she hung clothes upon the back yard line, suggested that I begin collecting shells. Collecting shells! How ridiculous, I thought to myself. “Where would I get shells!” I wailed to my mother. Suddenly she bent down and brought up a small snail shell, one of the most beautiful shells I have to this day seen in my life! “Here,” she said. “Your first shell.” I have never received a greater gift.

In the sand beside the Gertson’s garage I found numerous shells, marvelous seashells: a Strombus Sinuatus, a White Spindle, a Perry’s Triton, a Rams Murex. What were they doing there? This sand must be from the sea, I responded upon the incredible discovery. “No, just from a river bank,” Mr. Gertson said. When I showed Mrs. Gertson all the shells I had uncovered, she pinched herself in disbelief.

To this day, I still can’t fathom the extraordinary kindness of these neighbors, who obviously had brought in sand and filled it with the imported treasures just for my delight. I kept this sacred collection, along with others sent to me by my uncle in California, in a box that one day simply disappeared, never to be seen again. I used to suspect my brother was behind its disappearance; knowing him as I do today, I cannot imagine his involvement, unless he gave the shells as a surrogate gift—like the Gertsons had given me—to his younger friends.

The Gertsons were the first people in town to buy a television set, and invited my brother and me to witness its inauguration. After Mr. Gertson fiddled for what seemed like forever with the rabbit ears, they plugged the huge behemoth into the wall, and an image magically appeared: it was Liberace! How awful, I remember feeling, television was. Even then I recognized that his great displays of piano bravura were the ultimate of kitsch—even if I didn’t have a word for it.

The first day of school was a snowy one. Winter bore down hard upon this small Iowa village in September that year. I didn’t want to go to school—two long blocks away from our house—but my mother literally pushed me out the door. I went and turned back. “The wind blew me home,” I announced.

“You go on now,” she laughed. Evidently she called my father to report my obstinateness; the man was understandably irritated by her call—having spent his entire morning attempting to reassign buses stuck in the snow drifts along the backcountry roads. That day must have been behind my parents’ determination that I would never miss a day of class.

Indeed, for most of my life lived in the confines of educational institutions, I was a near-perfect student. I liked school well enough, save that the teachers, who—given the fact that father had employed them—went out of their way to make sure that I was treated just like everyone else. They never called on me when I raised my hand. When in music hour each week one student was selected to sing a special chorus, I was overlooked. For grades I received B’s only, never a coveted A. Their fairness outraged my inborn sense of justice.

I hated recess, for then the school bully controlled my life. Jimmy Good pushed and pulled, spouting every mean thing his little mind conjured up until I was nearly in tears. Children, it is clear, do not have a sense of irony, for no one ever thought his last name inappropriate. I tried to ignore him, but everywhere I turned on the playground there he was to threaten my existence. Often times, I just hid near the door. But even there I wasn’t entirely safe. One or another teacher was always attempting to push me back into the other children’s games.

News spreads quickly in small towns; no need for newspapers or television sets. The news that day was awful: Jimmy Good had been hit by a car downtown, three blocks from our house. The reporter of this news must have been quite graphic, for, although I did not witness the event, I can remember to this moment the image of Jimmy sprawled upon the street, a box of broken eggs beside him, where they had spilled from his grocery sack.

Now it was safe to go out to play. But by that time I had learned to live inside my imagination and was awkward in group games. I was almost relieved when Jimmy came hobbling back. Besides, I was no longer afraid. And Jimmy, as everybody knew, had now learned what fear felt like. I began my long retreat from the world where everybody knew or wanted to know everything about everyone into a world where no one could know anything about anyone—a retreat into my head, where for ten years or more I hid out.

Los Angeles, May 28, 2003

Monday, July 27, 2009

Perfect Balance (on Carolyn Brown's autobiographical memoir of Cage and Cunningham)


John Cage and Merce Cunningham




In memory of Merce Cunningham

Carolyn Brown Chance and Circumstance: Twenty Years with Cage and Cunningham (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007)

In her beautifully written and revelatory autobiographical study of the American composer and poet John Cage and the dancer Merce Cunningham, Carolyn Brown recounts the first time she saw Cunningham dance, in a Master’s Class in Denver in April 1951:

He was slender and tall, with a long spine, long neck, and sloping shoulders; a
bit pigeon-breasted. The body was a blue-period Picasso saltimbanque though the
face and head were not. I remember Merce most clearly demonstrating a fall that
began with him rising onto three-quarter point in parallel position, swiftly
arching back like a bow as he raised his left arm overhead and sinking quietly to
the floor on he left hand, curving his body over his knees, rolling over quickly
arriving on his feet again in parallel position—all done with such speed and
elegance, suppressed passion and catlike stealth that my imitative dancer’s mind
was caught short. I could not repeat it. I could only marvel at what I hadn’t
really seen. His dancing was airborne then; critics and audiences of that time still
cannot forget his extraordinary gift for jumping. …Merce Cunningham had an
appetite for dancing that seemed to me then, as it does today, to be his sole
reason for living.


Brown had been brought up on dancing, studying with her mother Marion Stevens Rice, a member of the Denishawn school of Ted Shawn and Ruth St. Denis. Throughout her childhood she had attended dance events in Boston. “Despite that exposure,” she nearly gushes, “I’d never seen anyone move like Merce; he was a strange, disturbing mixture of Greek god, panther, and madman.”

Seeing Cunningham dance, however, was not enough for her and her husband, composer Earle Brown, to pack up and move to New York. Carolyn had no intention of becoming a dancer! It was Cage, with whom she and her husband intensely talked over two nights of parties in Denver, who would truly influence their decision to move to New York. Although they had intended to go to Los Angeles so that Earle could privately study with Arnold Schoenberg, the great composer’s death in July 1951, along with a remarkable concert in their own living room by the young pianist David Tudor, as well as their earlier conversations with Cage determined their move East.

Greeted in their new environment again by Cage, with his “well-documented remarkable open-mouthed half-chuckle/half-laugh that exposed a large fleshy tongue lolling on lower teeth,” the couple was quickly swept up into a concatenation of artists, dancers, composers and writers—Morton Feldman, Christian Wolff Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Ray Johnson, Paul Taylor, and hundreds of other luminaries as they moved from lower Manhattan, to Black Mountain College—where in 1953 Cunningham first formed his dance company—through hundreds of American small towns, and eventually to Europe, Asia, and South America.

Along the way, the reader becomes privy to the hundreds of friend-ships, working mates, lovers, and acquaintances (Brown intimates the reasons for the break up of the Cage-Cunningham deep friendship with Rauschenberg, and hints at the dissolution of her own marriage). By the end of this long work, one feels almost as if he has read a panoramic novel, like War and Peace, instead of straight-forward autobiographical biography! Certainly, by the work’s last words, with the former Greek God-panther-madman sitting, wracked with pain in a wheel-chair—we feel not only that we have seen every important dance that Cunningham choreographed, but that we know these two great men.

For all of her devotion to and love of Cunningham, Brown reveals that of the famed duo, Cunningham was the difficult one, a man often lost within himself, at times almost reclusive, failing to explain his decisions—including the seemingly impulsive decision to dismiss the popular Remy Charlip from his company—or even to relate the logic behind or names of the works he created. Brown survived Cunningham’s company for so long, it appears, because of her great sense of independence, her ability to accept her mentor’s silences, and her devotion to her art and to the idea of Cunningham’s greatness.

Cage, on the other hand, comes across as a generous spirit throughout, a man who loved games, eating (his mushroom-hunting expeditions are renowned), and, most of all, talking. The gregarious Cage, traveling in the early days with the company, was responsible, so Brown suggests, for the feeling that they were, in fact, a company, for the sense of group spirit. Like a loving mother, Cage is always there to help Cunningham get through the ordeals of travel and the horrible pain the body of any dancer must endure.

Cage is presented as a joyful being, seeking everyone’s happiness. Brown writes:

For many years we seemed to be operating in the world, not in a world
apart. There was a richness and variety of experience. …John had friends
from coast to coast and was always making new ones. And if there was a
really fine museum, or notable architecture, or maybe just a good movie
around, John would find time to get us there. Slow scenic routes were
chosen instead of mind-numbing thruways. “Have you seen Niagara Falls?”
John would ask…. Our existence then was governed by process, not product.
The means and the end justified each other. Despite the fact that getting
there (traveling) seemed to take precedence over being there (performing),
and what and where we ate appeared to be far more important than any
single performance…our focus nevertheless was single: art-and-life. No
separation. John’s credo—accepting the multiplicity of things—was ac-
tively lived in the VW days. Later on, Merce’s credo—weeding out every-
thing but absolutely essential to putting on a performance—became the
company doctrine….


It was Cage who wrote to various venues throughout the world and arranged the world tours that Cunningham’s company would take. Cage, moreover, was responsible for raising money for many of Cunningham’s performances and travels. What is utterly fascinating in Brown’s remembrances is just how different this group of gay artists—Cage, Cunningham, Rauschenberg and Johns—were from the musical establishment as recounted in Sherry’s Gay Artists in Modern American Culture. At the same time that Copland, Menotti, and Barber—as well as the established dance company of Martha Graham—were being paid large amounts to present their works around the world, Cunningham’s company was turned down year after year for any governmental financial support. And grants came to Rauschenberg only after he received the Grand Prize at the Venice Biennale in 1964.

Cage’s open-mindedness was reflected, as well, in his commitment to chance operations. While Cunningham, on the other hand, attempted chance operations in several of his dance works, the actual performances were mostly pre-determined and were not altered in subsequent renditions. If the dances of the Cunningham company may seem to be the perfect blending of music, dance and art, Merce’s method of rehearsing his dancers without music, set, or costumes until the very last moment, seems to be at odds with the results.

Brown and other dancers make it clear they were not always in sync with the radical musical compositions by Cage, Wolff, Brown, and others that Cunningham employed. It is almost as if Merce and company were able to block out of their minds, at times, integral elements of the whole—although the critics commonly focused, in their attacks, on just those matters.

In the end, however, we come to perceive that the very greatness of Cunningham—and perhaps the brilliance of Cage’s music and thinking—had a good deal to do with the differences between these two men and, at times, the oppositions of their other collaborators. It seems to me that the beautiful black-and-white photographs upon this book’s cover express the essence of the Cage-Cunningham contributions to the whole artistic expression—a kind of perfect balance, between the arts, yes, but particularly between human beings.

Los Angeles, May 17, 2008
Reprinted from Rain Taxi, XIII (Fall 2008).

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Twenty Days in the City of Angels: The 15th Day (I'm Late, I'm Late) [on Howard Fox's 50th Birthday]


Howard Fox Jim Morphoesis, at another birthday celebration
Ever since I first met my companion, Howard has told me again and again that he does not like surprises, while I am very fond of them. Accordingly, when even before we open our Christmas gifts, Howard reveals the contents, I feel all the joy has been wiped away before I've even pulled the ribbon from the wrap; he, on the other hand, seems utterly annoyed by my secretive silence as he pulls the paper away from yet another DVD or cookbook!
Despite this attitude, however, I have often tried, particularly on special occasions, to find a way to bring a little startlement into his life. I often give up, however, before I have even begun, since he pleads beforehand each time that I cease and desist with any secret plots, warning me of his certain displeasure and possible anger.

For Howard's 50th birthday in 1996, nonetheless, I was determined that I was going to arrange something very special, perhaps even astounding. A few weeks before, we had eaten at an excellent small Italian tratorria, La Luna, in the nearby Larchmont neighborhood. Their Pennetta Fume and gnocchi had been particularly excellent. So I determined to rent out the entire restaurant for the evening, inviting about 50 of his and my friends.

A few weeks before the event, Howard once again warned me to not to plan anything "unusual" for his birthday, and begged me on several occasions to let him know if I had planned anything. This time I kept a stone face, refusing to be moved by what I perceived as strange strictures. But as the date came closer, I could see that he was highly suspicious, particularly when I suggested we might return to the Larchmont restaurant on the night in question. Usually, we simply asked each other where the celebrant would like to dine.

"So why are you so eager to go there?" he asked, carefully observing my demeanor.

"Remember how much we enjoyed that meal?" I pleaded.

"Yes, it was excellent. But we've only been there once. What if I wanted steak?"

"You can get steak anytime; and we eat too much meat," I responded, knowing that I'd better come up with another reason quickly or he'd immediately recognize my ploy. "Besides, I was impressed by how inexpensive it was. And it's so close. We don't have to drive far."

"I'll think about it," he frowned.

A few days later, I tried again: "Well we could go to Pane e Vino, which has such a pleasant garden. But the food isn't as good."

"How about Morton's [a nearby steakhouse]?"

"We always go to Morton's! I want to go to some place special for your 50th birthday!"

"And what's this thing you've got with Italian food all of a sudden?"

"I don't know. I just enjoyed La Luna, and found it pleasant. I thought it'd be fun—and affordable," I added.

"I don't really care," he stared me down, "but something's up."

"Absolutely not," I insisted. "Tell me where you want to go."

"As I said," I don't care, Howard demurred. "But don't surprise me."

"Oh I wouldn't do that," I lied. "I know how much you hate it."

But now I knew he truly did suspect, and I understood that I had to find some way to distract him from the facts. I spoke with my senior editor, Diana Daves, seeking her suggestions.

"You could drug him and drag him over there," she laughed. "But maybe if John and I join the two of you for a drink beforehand to celebrate, he'll be confused. We'll tell him we're on our way to a movie, and just want to toast him before we go."

"That's a great idea," I smiled, relieved by the recognition that if there had been a larger party planned, the two of them would certainly be included. If they told him they were going elsewhere, we'd confuse him, if nothing else.

I told Howard that Diana and her husband John wanted to see us before dinner. Indeed, we were to meet in a location in the opposite direction from the restaurant. Howard frowned in doubt. "They're coming in from the valley just for a movie?" he queried.

"Yeah, it's only playing at the Music Hall."

Howard always enjoyed the company of Diana and John, and that evening was no different. After a drink or two the conversation was flowing and he had nearly forgotten any fears he had had for the evening ahead. But suddenly, after glancing at a nearby clock, he asked: "When does you movie begin?"

Our friends had done their homework. "6:45," said John.

"You're going to be late!" Howard announced.

"What time is it?" Diana innocently asked.

"6.30," he replied.

"Oh dear."

"Oh dear," added John.

Suddenly they both stood like two frantic rabbits out of Alice in Wonderland, declaring: "We better go. We'll be late. We'll be late," quickly disappearing from the bar.

Howard took another sip from his scotch. "They're not going to make it," he said. "Particularly at this hour."

"Oh, I hope they do."

"They'll miss their movie," he opined.

As we got into the car, Howard asked, "Now we're on to Morton's?"

"Well, if you really want to go to Morton's," I pouted. "But I was so looking forward to La Luna."

"You're not planning anything?"

"If I were planning something," I responded, "I'd be nervous. Do I look nervous?"

"Yes, you look nervous," he laughed.

Off we drove to La Luna, and a few minutes later were walking down the street to the restaurant. There at a table in the doorway sat Diana and John.

Howard was so confused that for a few seconds he just stood in place, entirely perplexed, peering into the room where all our friends sat.

"So you missed your movie?" Howard laughed.
"Sure did," said Diana.

The room broke into applause, with some singing as we moved toward the back. Next to us sat one of Howard's artist-friends, Jim Morphesis, who had brought him a plastic trophy. "Here, you need an award," Jim announced.

Everyone—it would be pointless to try to recall all those I had invited—broke into conversation, a few asking: "Are you upset with Douglas for the surprise?"

"Yeah, I'm pissed," Howard answered. "But when I look around the room at all of you, I forgive him."

Los Angeles, July 17, 2009

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Twenty Days in the City of Angels: The 18th Day (The Aerie) (on attending a concert at the Walt Disney Concert Hall with its architect, Frank Gehry)


The Flight of Icarus from "Varekai," Cirque du Soleil


Frank Geary

The Walt Disney Concert Hall by night


Inside the Concert Hall. The "aerie" is on the upper right.

In 2002 Howard and I were invited to the house of the Québec Government Representative, Marc Boucher. The evening began with a pleasant cocktail party. I recall that Boucher collected pictures of pigs, and had numerous of these paintings and drawings all over his home, perhaps even on the tie he wore that evening. At some point we were all gathered into a bus and transported to downtown Los Angeles where we attended "Varekai," the newest extravaganza of the Cirque du Soleil. Although I recall some stunning production numbers, including the drop of a man with white wings into the center of the ring, I am not a particular fan of this kind of circus drama. Howard, however, did enjoy the evening, and I was certainly appreciative of the invitation.

Over the next couple of years, we kept in touch with Boucher, and Green Integer eventually received a small grant from his Délégation du Québec for the publication of Quebecois author, Denyse Delcourt in 2005.

Our second invitation to a Délégation event, however, occured before that, in December 2004, when, on the evening of the 16th, we joined Marc and a small group of invitees at Redcat (the Roy and Edna Disney-CalArts Theater) before a concert of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Chapelle de Québec of Handel's Messiah in the Walt Disney Concert Hall.

The performance was lovely, with a quite luminous quality to the singing of the Québec choir and wonderful solos by soprano Karina Gauvin, countertenor Andreas Scholl, tenor John Tessier, and bass-baritone Nathan Berg.

But of even greater fascination to us is that among our party was the architect of the Disney Concert Hall, Frank Geary himself. At the pre-event downstairs, we were graciously greeted by Marc, who revealed to Howard and me that since we last saw him, his wife had left him. "I truly wish I were gay," he openly laughed. "It would be so much easier to find a new companion than it is as a middle-aged heterosexual."

I spoke for a while to Frank Geary—we had met once previously at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art—before we were shepherded up the elevators to the concert itself.

The halls were gloriously lit those few days before Christmas, and the ushers were admirably professional in their Concert Hall positions. What I hadn't prepared for, however, was the fact that we were to witness this performance in the highest balconies of the Disney Concert Hall, which, since I suffer substantial vertigo, made it difficult for me to come and go down the narrow aisles, and even harder to stand to let others pass. All during the performance, I felt a bit as if I were that white-feathered Icarus from "Varekai," about to fall into the audience below. And the famed tenor solo, "Comfort Me," which I had myself sung as a youth, seemed inordinately appropriate to my own situation.

As we entered the aerie, Howard and I were met by a handsome young Black usher, smiling graciously as, seeing my discomfort, he offered to accompany us to our seats. "I love working here," he proffered without any coaching from us.

"Did you see that man that came in just before us?" Howard asked, pointing to Gehry as he stood at his nearby seat.

"That's Frank Gehry," I added.

Suddenly our young man blushed with genuine joy. "Really?"

"You should introduce yourself to him at intermission," Howard suggested.

"Oh, I will," he said. "Thank you for telling me."

At the intermission, I cautiously stood and moved toward the exit with the greatest of discomfort. The young usher was still standing there. "Did you meet him?" I queried.

"Yes! He shook my hand," he beamed.

Both Howard and I smiled with delight.
Despite my discomfort in our location, I perceived this aerie for the rest of the evening as joyful of a dwelling place, even if a bit dizzying, as sitting with the angels themselves.

Los Angeles, July 14, 2009

Monday, July 13, 2009

Happy Happy (on Your Bright Future: 12 Contemporary Artists from Korea)


Choi Jeong-Hwa, "Welcome"

Choi Jeong-Hwa, "Happy Happy"

Do Ho Suh, "Fallen Star 1/5"
Bahc Yiso, "Your Bright Future"

Lynn Zelevansky, Christine Starkman, and Sun Jung Kim (curators) Your Bright Future: 12 Contemporary Artists from Korea / Los Angeles County Museum of Art

As a admirer of contemporary Korean literature (publisher of major Korean poet Ko Un) and given the large Korean population of my city, I wanted very much to love the new show of Korean artists at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, located across the street from my home and my nearby office. This show does in fact give some glimmers of excellent art.

While the show was located primarily in the Eli Broad wing of the museum, the entire Ahmanson Building across the plaza was festooned in ribbons of fabric in yellow, red, and blue, by Choi Jeong-Hwa, an artwork that, whipped up by the wind, snapped and seemingly waved out its title "Welcome," to the neighborhood even before the opening of the show. And as museum goers entered the plaza they were greeted by an equally festive and joyful piece also by Choi titled "Happy Happy," a work made up of hanging plastic tubs, bins, strainers, bowels, funnels, and pitchers, all purchased from the nearby 99-cent Only Store. The latter work, a celebration of consumerism, was particularly beautiful, lit up so that the colors glowed in the night.

The first piece of the show, Do Ho Suh's "Fallen Star 1/5" was a definite knock out, picturing a replica of his home in Seoul where the artist grew up that has crashed into the a Providence, Rhode Island apartment house where Suh lived in the early 1990s while studying at the Rhode Island School of Design. The apartment, split literary in half—apparently by the crash of the Korean home—is filled with miniature furniture, reading materials, clothing, kitchen utensils, etc. with which Suh surrounded himself, and as the viewer goes from window to window to peer into the home and its contents, he witnesses what Suh describes as an "exposure of his life." The collision of the two buildings, Shu argues, signifies less of a outright statement of cultural differences than it does a kind of Wizard of Oz-like tale about cultural change:

I was in the house, making my first fabric architectural piece. All of a
of a sudden, there was a tornado that took the building into the sky. I
didn't know where I was going, but then I saw the ocean and a bridge from
Seoul to New York, so I knew that the house was heading to the U.S.
I realized the house was going down soon, so I finished my fabric
piece to use it as a parachute. I got scared when I realized that the house
was slowing down and I couldn't see land. I decided to throw things away,
but there were so many things I was personally attached to. I made a list
of things I possessed and prioritized them. It gave me time to reflect on
entire life in that house. Then I crossed off things on the list. In the end, I
decided to throw out pretty much everything except what was essential to
survival.
When the building started to descend, I went up on the roof with the
parachute. The house started to come down and crash, but it had a semi-
soft landing. And that's how I feel. Culture shock didn't come as a shock
to me. It took a long time.


Accordingly, Shu's work is personalized, and given its great attention to detail, we recognize these houses as being objects of great personal love and beauty. Yet one cannot ignore the fact that not only has Shu had to deal with a kind of "cultural shock," but his home country is itself a house broken in two. A companion piece, made of translucent resin, presents a more idealized version of the specific, a kind of glowing white quartered house, which could presumably be reunited in various forms by rearranging the four carts on which it stands.

Were that all the artists in this show were capable of this multi-complexity. At first, artist KIMsooja's video, "A Needle Woman," projecting images of streets in Patan (Nepal), Havana, Rio de Janeiro, N'Djanema (Chad), San'a (Yemen), and Jerusalem—in front of each of which the artist herself stands with her back to the viewer—is fascinating to watch as the various walkers in each of these locations move together and apart evidencing the differences of the way people interrelate and simply communicate in these very different cultures. But, in the end, since one cannot truly enter these landscapes, we realize that the various differences we have observed are, in fact, superficial. For the videos keep us at bay, and we can never know or understand what truly being in those locations means through the art.

Similarly, throughout the rest of the show the various objects, tapes, videos, and packing materials seem more to stand in for experience than actually create new meaning or participate in the world. Bahc Yiso's "Your Bright Future," for example, consists of 10 floodlights, tilting to the sky, surrounded by the electrical wiring necessary to keep the lights bright. The curators suggest that the work mimics a crowd standing before a charismatic leader, demanding a kind of obedience to the "great" or "dear" leader. But the bright future, given that Bahc lived in New York from 1982 to 1994, could be any false promise, including that of the American dream or desire for celebrity.

Gimhongsok's videos and large stuffed animals, including a Harvey-sized rabbit laid out on a pink sofa, "Bunny's Sofa," suggests yet another take on the crass commercialism of all things "cute," but in the end seems to lack the political bite it wants to suggest.

Haegue Yang, indeed, queries the whole question of even attempting to make art by presenting a room full of small and large wooden storage containers filled, we are told, by art he was unable to sell in various venues. Here the all-important question of the artist's ability to pay for the storage of what he creates comes painfully into play. But like so much else in this show, it is a conceptual piece that leaves one with little to hold onto. An essay on the subject might have been as elucidating as the vision of so many wrapped bundles. How I wanted to open those carefully packed cartons and encounter what lay within.

It is not the "conceptual" quality of this show's art, however, of which I am complaining, but the vagueness and, often, emptiness, of the concepts themselves. The bright future of happiness which the various artists seem both to desire and satirize is just that, a unresolved contradiction that transforms any possible enjoyment of the art into an empty promise.

Los Angeles, July 12, 2009