There's a row of bird portraits in the back upstairs room at Western Bridge. Each portrait is of an actual, one-of-a-kind bird, an infertile genetic mutation made by scientists, the first and last of itself.
Is there more life in the animals or in the portraits? The series is reproducible in limited edition, a considerably more impersonal process than the bearing and birthing of an animal. And yet, the real birds are nothing but dead ends. As ghostly photogravures—photogravure is a 19th-century process with warm results resembling something between a photograph and a drawing—the birds get perpetual life and, by each other's company on the wall, proxy family.
Carsten Höller's Birds (2006) is part of a group show at Western Bridge called Kit Bashing, referring to the practice of using scale-model parts to make something other than the intended whole. Drums (Kit Bashing) is Vancouver artist Steven Brekelmans's life-size drum kit made of remote-controlled-model-airplane parts. It has spindly balsa-wood legs and tissue-paper surfaces; its use would be its death, and so it is an object at an impasse. It is installed beautifully, under a spotlight in a room of its own, cornered.
Systematic creative misuse—putting things together "wrong"—is the foundation of modern art; Western Bridge director Eric Fredericksen is not claiming a fresh idea (freshness not even being the idea). But his essentially formalist approach X-rays works that could otherwise skate by on surface qualities. For instance, Paul Morrison's mesophyte, a monumental botanical wall painting in black acrylic, has been up at WB for a total of three shows and more than a year—and this show is its best context. Considered as a kind of Frankenstein's monster of the neat taxonomy of the natural world, the grandeur of its perversion is fully realized. A flower dwarfs a tree, close rubs up against distant. (After this, mesophyte will buried under drywall.)
Kit Bashing grew from the desire of William and Ruth True, the collectors who own Western Bridge, to accommodate mesophyte's last stand while displaying one of their landmark works, Christian Marclay's Video Quartet. Video Quartet is a composition in which scenes from the history of American and European film appear simultaneously in a 14-minute choreographed sequence in four synced-up projections that span 40 feet on the wall.
At first blush, the history of cinema seems to be the archive that Marclay can subject to editing. But his project questions the very concept of a unifying rubric. The scenes—many of them involving musical performance—rhyme, harmonize, and compete with each other both visually and aurally. In its densest moments, it is impossible to tell from which scene the sound is coming, and whether it is in fact synced up with the performance you see; at the same time, the mind wanders down the paths started by the few seconds of familiar narrative (Psycho, Casablanca). One begins to consider each scene, and Marclay's whole, as the conflicted, Dionysian body of a many-headed thing, reeling under many influences at once.
Seemingly disparate elements work the other way, toward each other into a convergence, in Steve Roden's Transmission (Voices of Objects and Skies) (2005). A constellation of upside-down, partly painted tin cans hangs in a dark room. Some of the cans have lights inside. There's space to stand in the middle of them enveloped in a light, mesmerizing haze of staticky, beeping sound.
The sounds are everyday shortwave-radio transmissions, but the visual component is abstracted from John Glenn's otherworldly description of a light field on the moon. Roden took the vowels from Glenn's description, assigned them color and frequency according to Arthur Rimbaud's synaesthetic poem Voyelles, and used the resulting pattern to decide which colors to paint which cans. What's amazing is how Roden strays so ludicrously far from Glenn's translation of his experience, and seems to evoke the experience. It's hard to say what encountering a light field on a foreign planet might be like, but having to hazard a guess, I'd go with standing in the middle of Transmission.
The most exuberant, destructive, and classically modern piece is Ryan Gander's Phantom of Appropriation (2006), a demolition derby of famous neon works whose letters, appropriated and pulled together to spell the title, lie smashed on the floor beneath their remnants.
For Gretchen Bennett, scrambling consummates a geographical desire, pulling New York and Seattle on top of one another like mutually transformative transparencies. Each of her three vinyl sticker landscapes at Western Bridge is a hand-cut re-creation of a high-contrast photograph from Williamsburg made of trendy advertising and graffiti stickers (Spacecraft, Quiksilver, Obey Giant).
These are a struggle at first, instigating competing rounds of spot-the-brand and find-the-image. While the surface imagery is distracting, details from the original photographs (a spiral of razor wire here, a shadow pattern there) emerge, leaving traces of longing that are rare and beautiful amid the blunt techniques, shorthand, and commercial imagery of street-based art.
Mounted on a wall in the sleeping quarters upstairs at Western Bridge is Ben Rubin's The Quiet Ticking of Dreams (2006), a series of LED screens laid out like boarding-house rows of tiny beds. Anonymous dream diaries stream across the screens to a light tapping sound, like stories coming across the Associated Press wires. And it's true: Dreams are necessarily fascinating newscasts. They scramble the self.