Wicked Artsy: Picturing Cultural Memory

by |
03/20/2009 2:27 PM |

Wicked Artsy is Benjamin Sutton’s art column for the people.

Often, contemporary art gets stuck in a self-referential loop, questioning and inverting its own terms while losing track of surrounding questions and causes. Three current exhibitions in Chelsea and Williamsburg turn such investigations of mediation and aesthetics into opportunities for exploring cultural heritage and identity. Using video, installation, sculpture and photography, they question how sentimental and historical values become attached to objects and memories, and how those tokens of remembering in turn shape and distort our memories.

At Chelsea’s Tina Kim Gallery, Korean video artist Yeondoo Jung’s Handmade Memories is the result of a series of interviews with 12 elderly people encountered and interviewed on the streets of Seoul. On three pairs of screens, the interviews play alongside Jung’s elaborate reconstructions of the memories being related. The move recalls Hirokazu Koreeda’s meta-cinematic rumination on death Afterlife, and Jung’s project isn’t much different: to document the experiences of a dying generation in a nation that’s modernized at breakneck speed during their lifetimes. And indeed, reminiscences of young love, leaving for the army, and starting families tend to be the strongest in these interviews. Jung’s re-enactments, though, already blur the lines between historical text and sentimental drama. Each is visually stunning, performed by a carefully choreographed team for a static camera. Knowingly, Jung portrays memories as fictions distorted with every telling.

Alina and Jeff Bliumis undertake a less elaborate, more direct exposé on shifting cultural identities at Black and White Gallery’s new project space in Williamsburg. Rooted in the Russian immigrant community of Brighton Beach, their four-part investigation asks how cultural heritage is re-shaped by mass movements and preserved through entrenched rituals. In a video shot at a local liquor store, a series of photos taken in a Russian language bookstore and another on the Brighton Beach boardwalk, the Bliumises found varying degrees of skepticism about the American immigration dream, assimilation and cultural preservation. An accompanying stack of their trademark foam book sculptures summarizes the exhibition nicely. With their collection of colorful dictionaries translating German, Russian and other languages into English, the Bliumises portray cultural memory and change as a dialectic process, like constantly flipping between sections of a multi-lingual dictionary.

Just around the corner at Pierogi, David Shapiro’s Everything Must Go takes a broader look at how we attach sentimental value to objects. With sculptures and objects strewn on the gallery floor, his installation is both an approximation of a sidewalk sale and a kind of voyeuristic look at someone’s prized belongings. There’s a quasi-anthropological pleasure to taking each piece as part of a larger puzzle whose assembly will reveal the owner of all these objects. By inviting this exercise, Shapiro plays with the old truism: "The things you own end up owning you." What kind of person would have all these homeless signs, pictures, postcards, kitschy mementos and strange art objects? The resulting portrait, not surprisingly, is ever-changing. Indeed, all three shows emphasize the constantly shifting grounds on which our personal and collective cultures are rooted. Just as our identities are constantly changing, so too are the objects, memories and rituals we use for re-affirmation.

Yeondoo Jung: Handmade Memories
at Tina Kim Gallery, 545 W 25th St, 3rd Fl (between Tenth and Eleventh Aves), until March 28

Alina and Jeff Bliumis: Casual Conversations in Brooklyn at Black and White Project Space, 483 Driggs Ave (between N 9th and N 10th Sts), until June 14

David Shapiro: Everything Must Go at Pierogi, 177 N 9th St (between Driggs and Bedford Aves), until April 13