There is a city of misremembered buildings inside Suyama Space. The buildings are familiar, but wrong. They stand on the floor, dangle on platforms from the ceiling, and sprout from the wall, and they're made of translucent white plastic, the corrugated stuff used for mail delivery tubs and campaign signs. The artist, Deborah Aschheim, cut, sculpted, and lit the buildings from memory. If she went to sleep and dreamed a city made of all the cities she'd ever been in, this would be it. It's the set of an utterly personal movie, based on a set of collectively shared parts.
Parts of this set are from Seattle. Aschheim got her master of fine arts here at the University of Washington in 1990, and climbing up like white flowers from the gallery's dark wood floor are multiple miniatures of the Pacific Science Center's spindly arches. Some are just stalks without the webs on top, like single legs torn from a spider and trying to walk on their own. Mushroomlike towers are mash-ups of the curves of the Space Needle and swoops from other places. High-rises in the gallery take after buildings in Los Angeles, Berlin, and who knows where else. Two repeating sources are from Chicago, by the architect Bertrand Goldberg: the corncob concrete towers called Marina City (erected 1964), which were intended to start reversing white flight, and the 1975 brutalist concrete spaceship of the Prentice Women's Hospital, a cloverleaf-shaped tower with oval windows, designed to accommodate fathers in birthing rooms. The Prentice is currently under imminent threat of demolition, but it has a gleaming white West Coast double (larger, but similar) that's not going anywhere: St. Joseph's Hospital, which stands high atop Tacoma, and which Goldberg worked on concurrently with the Prentice. The concrete of the Prentice was left unfinished; the concrete of St. Joe's was finished with glossy white fiberglass. The two are like nodes lit up from within one brain.
Aschheim has said that her intention is always to make something that is invisible visible. For a few years, she created walk-through sculptures that demonstrated neurological patterns, maps of brain activity in which each node was a center of content: a video, say, or a photograph or light. One of her series appeared in six iterations with each installation smarter than the last, containing more information stored with greater sophistication determined by the development of publicly available technology and what Aschheim learned along the way. For another project, she created a series of drawings by collaborating with people losing their memories in a nursing home.
At the same time, members of her family were developing dementia and aphasia, the loss of the ability to find the right words. After reading that some neurologists believe there are separate pathways for storing language and sound, Aschheim commissioned musicians to write songs about her favorite words that she could memorize—a way to back up her mind's hard drive in the face of fearing a fate like her aphasic aunt's, a woman who had been an accomplished editor. Meanwhile, Aschheim has also been making highly realistic and touching ink-on-Dura-Lar drawings that blur time periods. In their nostalgia for modernist futurism—think Space Needle, the Theme Building at LAX, the Unisphere and Tent of Tomorrow at Flushing Meadows Corona Park in New York—these drawings have something in common with the works of an artist like Patte Loper. But Aschheim's drawings are more personal, with titles like Chandler No. 2 (Mom in Front of Buildings You Can't See Anymore, Los Angeles 1968) and Tent of Tomorrow (We Rode the Subway All the Way to Flushing Corona Meadows). They layer time on top of itself, doing the opposite of a work like The Clock, Christian Marclay's 24-hour video of movie clips of timed action corresponding directly to real time. Aschheim communicates the dislocating but completely familiar experience of mental time travel, of skipping from time to time in one's mind, like when you drive down the street of a city that has changed so much in front of your eyes that you can see, flashing in front of you, all of its pasts, in addition to what's actually there.
The last time Aschheim had a solo show in Seattle was 13 years ago, also at Suyama Space, and the map of her new installation echoes her memory of her old installation, another city upon a city. Every city is both a visible surface and a buildup of lost layers, and artists are often the agents revealing the multiple exposures of real-life scenes. Ghost buildings are the heart of art worlds. If you follow art in Seattle, close your eyes and picture the last 13 years: Howard House, the Bridge Motel, Lawrimore Project, the 619 building, Consolidated Works—all vacated. There were temporary inhabitations, too, like Implied Violence down in a warehouse that's now Amazon, or when Annie Han and Daniel Mihalyo rebuilt the abandoned upscale retail environment at Rainier Tower using materials from nearby liquidation sales just after the 2008 crash. The shadows of financial ruin grew longer when you considered that Rainier Tower's architect, Minoru Yamasaki, was creator of the World Trade Center that fell on September 11, as well as Pacific Science Center's ghostly arches—a little trigger, and a waterfall of associations tumbles. This tumble is why Storefronts Seattle is so compelling: By placing artists in storefronts in historic neighborhoods that have no contemporary tenants, time becomes like an accordion, playable and collapsible.
Aschheim achieves her effects by very finely crafted means. White corrugated plastic—a material used for the conveyance of messages, whether snail mail or slogans—has never looked so good. Lit dramatically, the arches and walls and doorways and urban canyons between these model buildings can range in color from almost purple to nearly gold, snow white to noir. People in the gallery look like giants among the buildings, or amateur architects at play, dreaming of what might come and of what has gone before.