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When Meiro Koizumi makes a video, he does not pose as a nice guy. In The Corner of Sweet and Bitter, his brand-new work that opened Tuesday night at Bellevue's Open Satellite, the artist is seen barking orders at a Mexican day laborer—telling the laborer to "Work, work!" and "Go, go, go, go, go!" The laborer, whose name is Luis Medina, is doing what the artist told him to, which is several things at once: Medina is singing the national anthem. He is holding his hand over his heart. He is lifting a barbell with the other arm. His mouth is stuffed with a hot dog. The hot dog is taped onto his mouth and his left nostril is blocked. A straw is attached to his right nostril, so that every time he exhales, the air coming out of the straw causes a miniature American flag in front of his face to wave. Medina is doing all these things at once, with three cameras trained on him. The main camera shows his eyes through the flag so that the flag is superimposed on his face. Through everything, Medina does not cry or sweat, though he is obviously having some trouble breathing. After a period of time and without encouragement from the artist, Medina pulls off the hot-dog-and-straw mask, stops singing, drops his arm from his heart into his lap, and stops lifting the weight. He sits on the bench, breathing heavily. The video ends.

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This video is projected on a screen inside a shack set in a strawberry field in the gallery. Inside the shack, everything from the video shoot is still there; it is like an abandoned torture chamber. You see where Medina sat. The hot dog is there, rotting. The little flag. The weight bench. Outside the shack, the strawberry field is real. The plants are alive and growing in neat rows that belie the labor that went into getting them there.

There were two kinds of labor that went into this installation: what might be called art labor, and regular manual labor. The art labor is what Medina went through in the video. He was hired and paid by the artist, who met and interviewed him for the part at the nearby Home Depot. Medina worked for one 8-hour day and one 6 1/2-hour day in order to create the final, 15ish-minute video. The video begins with the artist asking Medina his name, his age, his background, and whether he has an American passport. (To me, the question about the passport is the cruelest moment in the video.*) The manual labor, on the other hand, was performed by the artist and a few volunteer helpers. They carried sacks and sacks of soil into the gallery to build the field, filling the garden halfway with mulch only to be told that the mulch was too smelly; they had to start over. They worked as builders and farmers—doing work that Medina normally does, on days when he's not being hired by an artist (lifting, gardening, moving, digging, cutting). Medina was not hired to do the manual labor (the artist did that), only the art labor.

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The inspiration for this split in labor came in part from Koizumi's two-month residency at Open Satellite, which includes living in an upper-floor condo in the new tower that houses the gallery. From his condo, the Japanese artist looked out on another tower under construction in Bellevue. On one floor he saw a brand-new workout gym, and people in there, working out. Meanwhile, at street level, he saw construction workers finishing the building itself—not working out, but working. All of this was happening on land that was once farmland. Bellevue once was home to a thriving community of Japanese farmers growing strawberries. In the analogy of work versus workout, Koizumi hired Medina, a worker, to do a workout.

Koizumi came to Bellevue not yet knowing what he would make. He researched the history of the city at the library. He interviewed a third-generation Japanese man whose father had been a strawberry farmer. But it wasn't until he went to Home Depot and saw the crowd of manual laborers that he understood what he wanted to do. The video he created has strong ties to his earlier works Human Opera XXX and Amazing Grace. In those (my review here), he seems to abuse his subject using degrading props. (In Amazing Grace, he is his own subject; in Human Opera XXX, his subject is a man who is trying to tell a tragic life story.)

Koizumi calls the Open Satellite installation The Corner of Sweet and Bitter, but the video is titled Working Like A Dog. At Tuesday's opening, at least two people were disturbed by it—and not in a good way. But Koizumi has mixed feelings about answering his critics, since his answers could ruin the videos.

"This meanness is how I propose myself to the world, and also this meanness is out in the world," he said yesterday in an interview at the gallery. "But it's institutionalized. You don't see it." Unlike in the video, which is trained on Medina's eyes, "You don't have to see these people's eyes while they are doing hard labor," Koizumi said. "It's a bit like these histories are hidden. People like the image of a strawberry field but they don't like mulch. I feel like my art is a little like mulch: maybe good for society but it stinks. That's how our food will grow, but you don't have to deal with it every day."

When Koizumi talks he sounds a little defensive, but in his art he does not take any steps to defend himself against charges of cruelty. If there are tender moments between him and his subjects (with whom he spends long days, after all—one assumes the subjects, though paid, also continue to participate by choice), he doesn't show them to viewers (with the brief exception of the artist and Medina practicing the national anthem in Working Like A Dog—there is no equivalently soft moment in Human Opera XXX).

If his videos are exposés of real-world conditions, the artist is not positioned as the whistleblower but as the boss in an unequal scenario. He proposes his work not just as part of the solution but as part of the problem, too. He proposes that art is not innocent. This basic premise seems to have roots in feminist thought (everything is political), which links it with a history of socially activist art. But at the same time it seems cynical about activism, about the potential for social improvement since even the forces that are supposed to be good (art, especially) are false and implicated in the abuses they theatricalize.

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Somehow that feels like a stopping point, but only because I can't get any farther right now. Still thinking.

The artist and his wife, Yuka. This sweet-faced man wants you to consider that he might be a monster.
  • The artist and his wife, Yuka. This sweet-faced man wants you to consider that he might be a monster.

*Koizumi is politely asking whether Medina is illegal. Medina says yes, he has a passport, politely answering that he is legal. The exchange is meaningless in meaningful ways. Koizumi asks the question of a government officer, but he is actually an outsider himself—he is a Japanese artist and he and Medina both have accents when speaking English together. Also, Medina might not be telling the truth. Asking the question is not the same as asking to see the passport. We don't actually know whether Medina has the passport, we only know that he says he has the passport. We also don't know whether the artist believes Medina, only that the artist felt compelled to ask. Medina's legal status is as unresolved as the dynamic between artist and subject.