At various locations throughout the 10th Northwest Biennial at Tacoma Art Museum, there are small stacks of neatly folded pants. Take a pair, give a pair. Pants Exchange is an artwork by Portland's Abraham Ingle. His other piece in the exhibition is called Fake Up, a salon with a beautician and a photographer where people line up to get makeovers with products incarcerated women adapt for makeup: coffee grounds, Skittles, Crystal Light.
Susie Lee's allegorical portraits of elderly men and women fall on the more static end of the exhibition's spectrum—which is not static at all. The portraits preside over the show the way CEO portraits might loom over boardrooms: highly staged, tightly framed, and formal as hell. But these are not CEOs, and electrical cords extend down from the frames. These are video screens hung vertically, and the costumed subjects have been instructed to sit as motionless as possible for an impossible 30 minutes at a time.
Standing in one corner of the gallery, Paul Kuniholm Pauper's arcade game Cardboard Commandments solicits your quarter. When you pop it in the slot, you're rewarded with a slide show on the screen of pictures of handwritten panhandlers' signs asking for money. Across the gallery in another corner—and the activation of corners is itself worth noting—is a sculpture by Jeff Jahn. It's high up on the wall, a faux forest canopy made of jagged pieces of plywood that create a small, localized environment of green-tinted shadows where you can hide out to think.
On a TV monitor on the floor is a video of Jin-me Yoon prostrating herself on a board with wheels that she uses to crawl her way through Seoul, South Korea, the city where she was born. The video of her passing by a Gucci retail outlet or throngs of pedestrians who ignore her—occasionally, someone looks at her askance—is paired with a photograph in which her two grown children hold her body aloft in a leafy area of Vancouver, BC, where she now lives and where her children were born.
There are only 29 artists and artist teams in this biennial. It's a short list compared to years past, and it's juicy with opinion—it feels a little like a religious experience. Vancouver, BC, is included in the region for the first time—hallelujah. Of the stand-alone artists, 13 are women and 15 are men—amen. At least eight of the artists are people of color—can I get a witness? Six of the artists have positions at area colleges and universities—each one, teach one. Oh, and the museum is about to be full of queers: The biennial is smaller than usual because the museum is leaving room for Hide/Seek, the exhibition of American portraits of same-sex desire that drew fire from the Catholic League when it opened in Washington, DC—the one that was censored and whose only other tour stop is Brooklyn. When it comes to interdisciplinarity, multiculturalism, and risk taking, Tacoma Art Museum is putting into action what most museums only talk about doing.
The biggest influences on this biennial are the twin forces of internationalism from Vancouver, BC, and Portland's emphasis on social art practices, led by Harrell Fletcher's Portland State University program. Fletcher's contribution is Assignment for Tacoma Art Museum: The museum chose an environmental organization and a group of landscape artists. The artists made paintings and photographs of sites identified by the environmental group; somehow, the environmental group is going to follow up with actions that benefit art and artists, says Rock Hushka, curator of TAM.
Hushka, who's worked on four consecutive biennials, invited Brazilian-born, BC-based independent curator Renato Rodrigues da Silva to co-curate. Their choices form the argument that interesting connections have yet to be made about artists who work between mediums and persons who live between cultures—pairing the ideas of interdisciplinarity and multiculturalism.
Henry Tsang's installation includes three channels of video, text, and a wine bar that will actually serve wine occasionally in the gallery. The video features interviews about the Napa-like explosion of the wine industry in the Okanagan Valley, where small farmers struggle to make ends meet behind the scenes of luxury condos and hot tubs. An Osoyoos elder describes where the native language has expanded to include concepts—like "hot tub"—that never needed words before.
Which is not to say that artists dealing with the crossing of cultures are confining themselves to the crossing of mediums: Matika Wilbur's strong new photographs are classic black-and-white, small format. And Matt McCormick crosses time periods as well as mediums in The Great Northwest (which is, coincidentally, showing at New York's Museum of Modern Art next month), but with a sense of uncanny continuity. It's surprising to see how much hasn't changed in his re-creation—in video and photographs—of a Northwest road trip taken by two adorable women whose scrapbook he discovered in a thrift store.
In an interview, Hushka described the identity of this region in terms of "how our edges always shift—the way people keep coming from other places, the way we're never satisfied with the definition of who we are." (This seems, ironically, like an American thing to say, and it's worth remembering that the "Northwest" of this 10th Northwest Biennial is geographically backward if you're in Canada.) To this end, the edges of the exhibition are made blurry: A barely visible mural on the wall leading into the main gallery by Laura Hughes is in super-pale iridescent paint, opposite a bank of windows, so that it looks like a shadow cast by the windows on the wall.
In an election year, and a year of Occupy activism, the biennial rightly raises the specter of politics and includes artists who invite viewers into action. Ariana Jacob, a student of Fletcher's in Portland, set up a tent in the gallery that looks like an American flag with question marks where stars would go. She'll sit under the tent and talk to people. "Idealist with socialist leanings and a tendency to question myself seeking conservative and libertarian people for conversation about our country" is her ad, printed on a placard. It's a good stretch for the museum to accommodate such living, breathing works; there's also a can't-we-all-just-get-along feeling that's disturbing.
A subtler example of interaction between artist and viewer is Samovar by Reza Michael Safavi. A video of a beach on a sunny late afternoon, with a Persian rug spread out for a beach towel, is projected on the wall, with a Persian rug in front of it on the floor. On both carpets sits a samovar, a curved metal container that heats tea.
A series of cushions on the carpet invite you to sit. As you watch the video, the artist emerges in the distance from underwater, wearing a wet suit and wading to shore, where he walks out and sits down on the rug, facing the same direction as you, toward the sun. He pours and drinks tea, and "magical" things happen: A dog runs across the beach pushing a giant doughnut, the teapot lifts and hovers in the air. The artist does not respond. When he finishes his tea, he disappears again into the water, leaving you there alone with your impressions.
This article has been updated since its original publication.