Transcendence seems like such a good idea. And Lele Barnett had her reasons for choosing it as a theme for the group show she was organizing at the Wing Luke Asian Museum. Reason one: Barnett, who's Asian-American, thought the museum already had enough displays mired in the muck of racism and internment camps and anger; she wanted to choose contemporary Asian-American artists who would look forward rather than back. Reason two: Barnett's bailiwick as a curator, back to her days at the now-defunct McLeod Residence, has always been digital media—the material transcendence of physical limits.
The show she put together, Cultural Transcendence, is five installations by five artists: a video game that continually plays itself, a cartoon bird responding to a hand-cranked music box, video portraits projected on a curtain of silk flower petals, an animated video directed through a bell jar, and an electronic jacket that lets you control sounds and lights in a dark room. The artists—Robert Hodgin, Brent Watanabe, Horatio Law, Heidi Kumao, and Eunsu Kang—are pleasantly unhinged from the conventions of what art mediums are "supposed" to be (finding and featuring this kind of artist is Barnett's strength). They weave together two and three dimensions, sew, tell stories, string together tin cans, and provide instructions for how to interact with their art.
But the show teeters between delicate and limp. The way the bell jar contains and refracts the light from Kumao's video is exquisite, but the animation itself—made by applying effects to knit-together live-action video and historical photographs of interned Japanese Americans planting gardens—never rises above the level of anonymity to become affecting. It reaches for the haunting quality of the introspective, repetitive films of Iranian artist Shirin Neshat, but lacks their gut punch.
It's easy to transcend your way right out of being interesting, floating up and away into vagueness and insignificance—or worse. There's a blank, beatified look on the closed-eyed faces of young Chinese daughters and their adoptive parents, who flash, one by one, on Law's curtain of colored silk petals. This lack of expression is echoed in the simplistic rhetoric of the work's label: "A new kind of family has developed in today's world: one in which social relationships and interactions transcend biological connections." Why transcend, or leave behind, the important condition of being female and Chinese? (Who benefits from that?) That sounds uncomfortably close to Chris Matthews "forgetting" Obama is black during his State of the Union speech. It's simply too easy. (The best view of Law's curtain is on the wall behind it, where you can't make out the faces and only see the shadows of the petals, punctuated by the changing colored light of the portraits.) Meanwhile, Kang's jacket contraption that enables a body to manipulate its environment—you can "swim" in light by moving your arms and legs—is overwrought (and also functions clunkily). Its claim: "You connect, melt, and finally expand yourself through aural dissipation. May you fathom the ocean."
The strongest works seem not to propose transcendence, but instead to refer to the wobbliness of the whole concept. After all, despite its promises of liberation, transcendence in its Platonic/Christian form is a metaphor that describes separate realms, one better than the other. If art teaches anything, it's William Carlos Williams's (less Western) mantra: No ideas but in things. It's down in the dirt of imperfect stuff—language, paint, history, tin cans—where transformation happens. And transformation is an alternative to transcendence. It's not a jump in levels, but a move through materials. It's godless, but it can be divine.
The little cartoon bird by Watanabe is living in that buzzy place where transformation might happen, staggering comically across the gallery wall along one of the building's exposed pipes. Watanabe knits together two dimensions and three; you don't have to choose between material and immaterial planes, because they're linked. Best of all, despite the intelligence of the work, the bird doesn't take himself too seriously. He's a parody of neurosis. He calms down if you crank the music, and a set of tin cans "send" the music box's sound from your hand to his needy ear.
In the next room, Hodgin's video game meanders through a computer-generated bamboo forest of fog and sparkling lights. It's an homage to a childhood memory of visiting Mount Fuji, the ur-symbol of Japan and a symbol of connection with an essential part of his identity (Hodgin is half Japanese). Except, his mother told him later, Hodgin never did visit Mount Fuji. Hodgin presents his transcendent memory as just what it is: a very beautiful lie.
Across town in an unfinished basement-cum-gallery called TARL, there's another artist breaking down the trickery and lure of transcendence—but in very solid mediums: chunks of sulfur, sheets of royal-blue Plexiglas, strands of nylon rope, and long black quartz crystals.
Locrian Invocation, a woo-woo new age record by harpist Joel Andrews, was the inspiration for Eugene artist Rob Smith's sculptures at TARL. The album cover reads, "LET LIGHT AND LOVE AND POWER RESTORE THE PLAN ON EARTH," and there's a composite image of a man's face combining the godly figures Andrews channels in the music, from Christ to Kuthumi. (You can see and hear the record in the living room above the basement.)
Locrian Invocation is ridiculous in many ways, but Smith doesn't ridicule it. He tries to present its longing for salvation in more workable form. He's scratched the album cover's image of the male face in reverse on the back of a sheet of Plexi (using the quartz crystals as his pencil), and the result is pretty magical: The face appears to hover on the front like a shifty hologram, and you can barely believe that the minimal scratches on the back produced this powerful image. Between front and back is a teeny leap of faith.
The craggy yellow sulfur he uses is earthy, while the blue reflective Plexi is skylike or heavenly (the colors are taken from the album cover), and they work together to create something that's both still and moving. Two of the pieces amount to bondage performances: Hunks of sulfur are roped to the sheets of Plexi, bowing the sheets and casting reflections onto the curved surfaces. The reflections distort as you walk around, popping into clarity and sliding out of it. Smith wants to get at the yearning for transformation, not a "PLAN" for transcendence, but he gives himself a challenge: Do it through the cheesy materials, not by going around them (the colors, the godly face, the Plexi curved and strung with rope so it can be plucked like the harp). Smith makes his own, unfinished invocation.
In a talk at the opening, the artist, who's also a drummer, said he turned to visual art so he could finally leave the room. He hopes the materials continue to vibrate, and they do.