The red, white, and blue bunting popping up everywhere is your cue that Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness: American Art from Yale University Art Gallery is the headlining exhibition at Seattle Art Museum this season. (Oversize, plush Uncle Sam hats are for sale at the gift store.) That exhibition, on the fourth floor, is about mythmaking, about rebels and patriots, about old Americans. New Americans elsewhere in the museum are taking apart those old Americans and their certainties. On the third floor, Titus Kaphar's re-created history paintings have been hacked into with an X-Acto knife.
Down on the second floor, the themes and agendas of Young Americans, a 15-minute film by Northwest artists Mary Simpson and Fionn Meade (both now live in New York), are far less specific. Not much happens in the film. Six not-particularly-young-looking people dressed like they're going to a funeral on a cold day play games and look around at the Home of the Good Shepherd, a bucolic campus in the bucolic Wallingford neighborhood that, from 1906 to 1973, put up orphaned girls and "wayward" women (today it is a community center).
The only dialogue is a series of voice-overs. One man says, "Okay, here's the story." Another man says, "No, that's not the way it goes," but he only tells a riddle. They switch on and off like this a couple of times.
In the game scenes, a man on all fours is protected by one member of the group while the others try to get at him, pushing him, taunting him, hugging him. In another game, each person has a stick of chalk, and in a frenzy, they all descend on a circle of floor to make a drawing, but no image materializes because they keep interfering with each other; it's like collaboration on meth.
In the looking scenes, the characters stand outside and contemplate something in the sky, or they stand inside the Good Shepherd, in the chapel, looking out the windows. Simpson's camera work has always made familiar spaces seem suddenly invested with layers and layers of history. Here she shoots into the light, standing in positions of relative darkness and facing a blinding brightness that makes silhouettes of its subjects. It's a spellbinding technique, especially given the Good Shepherd's stained-glass windows and the purple Seattle day outside, but it also has implications about the possibility of seeing clearly depending on where you're standing.
These "young" Americans seem old-fashioned, tired, and stranded, like alumni returned to a college years later to find it empty. Simpson and Meade were born in 1978 and 1973, respectively, around when the orphanage was closing (and when David Bowie wrote the rueful "Young Americans"), and they're inheritors of the last days of 20th-century American adventurism. Their actors behave like amnesiacs in this windy and beautiful place. They may be looking back through time for something, but it's like they can't remember what it is anymore.