This Heavy Load, Brent Watanabe's anxious installation at Gallery4Culture, is a mayhem-seeking system. The art is a series of white sculptures. There's a house, the size of a large dollhouse, made of paper with a paper duck trapped under it. Across the room from that is a wall made of foamcore and paper, where, halfway up, a video mouse with great big worried eyes, projected on Plexiglas to look like a holograph, is scrambling to escape through the window, twisting his body 360 degrees, Exorcist-style. On a low path, a video cat hops back and forth robotically, but also like her paws are on fire. All these are gathered around, and responding to, a hidden police scanner, tucked under a bench with a sign that says "This is not a bench." (That's not part of the art—they just don't want you to sit there.)
For some reason, the scanner seems to pick up too little activity—in the half hour or so I was there, I only once heard the emergency noise, followed by a male voice describing some urgent situation out in the world that I couldn't make out. (The artist says he wants to correct this technological glitch.) When the police scanner gets activity, it causes the duck feet (sticking out from the base of the house) to start walking—pointlessly, getting nowhere. The house also has pipes growing out its sides with lights inside like glowing eyes. They respond to your presence by flashing. Organ music plays continuously, faintly, but swells and grows when the police talk amongst themselves, as if you were part of a film whose plot is obscured. Something bad is happening.
Watanabe earned his bachelor's degree in drawing and painting at the University of Washington in 1995, and drawing is central to what he does—along with sensors and robotics. This Heavy Load, like so much of Watanabe's underappreciated work, is a Trojan horse of charm and ingenuity combining the mechanical and the digital, delivering somehow reassuring critiques of contemporary life. Given that, and this installation's use of white, Watanabe here comes across as a plugged-in protégé of Seattle art's godfather of vital, crushing delicacy, Jeffry Mitchell.
The mouse is especially mesmerizing, even sympathetic (as Flaubert said of Madame Bovary: Mouse, c'est moi). The little guy is projected onto the plate of Plexiglas using an old trick theaters would use to make a ghost appear onstage; Watanabe's version includes an iPad mounted secretly in a shelf. A little pile of actual (as opposed to projected) white string laid at the holograph-mouse's feet implicitly exposes his transitoriness. All around the darkened room, video is projected onto the walls. It is a continuous stream of simply drawn beams and shingles, falling and falling.