Strangers in Strange Lands
Practically all art deals with alienation; it’s hard to get away from the feeling we’re exiles
on this planet. Any metaphorical act reminds us of that uneasy condition. Things are less
and less what they seem, more and more obviously. We’re all aliens, wondering what
better place or state of mind -- what Eden -- has been lost, and how, and whether we
can ever return to it again.
Of course often that underlying disquiet is echoed by less metaphysical displacements.
Among these, moving to another country is one of the most fundamental. Immigrants
everywhere struggle to maintain a sense of coherent identity in sometimes hostile or
radically unfamiliar surroundings. Legal Aliens, currently on view at SPACES Gallery, is
primarily a show of video art, still fresh from its debut at Smack Mellon Gallery, an artist-
run space in Brooklyn, NY. In that venue it was the third installment of an annual series
called Multiplex, reinventing the suburban Cineplex in a more downtown, fine arts context.
Assembled by Smack Mellon guest curators Ofri Cnaani and Rotem Ruff, Legal Alien’s
video installations cover a lot of ground, from Tel Aviv to Paris to Cleveland, Mexico,
Romania, and Germany, plus hints and flavors of a dozen other cities and countries that
persist in the minds of the show’s very international band of artists. Kicking off the set-up
at SPACES is the only part of the exhibit that isn’t a moving digital image: a satirical work
by Esperanza Mayobre titled Virgin of Esperanza, Mother of Immigrants. Mixing American
dreams with the sometimes superstitious faith of many peoples around the world
(including our own), the work consists of twenty-nine votive candles, lit and arranged in a
long horizontal niche built into the gallery wall. Mayobre emigrated from Venezuela to her
present home in New York City, and her multi-layered work must refer at least in part to
Venezuela’s famous Catholic visionary Maria Esperanza, who died in 2004. But the
picture on the candles, “Santa Esperanza”, is of the artist herself, holding a green card
and an American passport. Esperanza of course means hope, and whatever America’s
faults at home and on the world stage, the artist reminds us that jobs and privilege are no
small part of what it takes to get you through the night; how many, immigrant and citizen
alike, pray at this altar?
Visitors to the gallery wander from room to room, partition to partition. Some of work is
seen on flat screen, some is projected. It’s probably just as well that the experience is
almost nothing like classic mall movie-going. No over-priced sugar-packed snacks crunch
underfoot, no deafening sound system screeches (those who want to hear a soundtrack
have to put on earphones, dangling on long cords next to most works)., and of course no
audience yells or mumbles. There’s also little in the way of plot, production costs, or
demands on your time. Many of the pieces are brief, more like animated photographs
than feature-length films.
Also built around the emotional power of religious iconography is Albanian-born Adrian
Paci’s pilgrIMAGE. Paci grew up in a village named Shkodra, where a famous icon went
missing sometime in the 1400’s. It later showed up in Rome, where it is still venerated as
the Madonna del Buonconsiglio. Paci’s video-within-a-video shows crowds in Shkodra
gazing at the errant Madonna as the artist projects the icon on the walls of his hometown.
Like Her, Paci has immigrated to Italy, so the scene is a homecoming for both of them.
Perhaps the most interesting part of this uneventful but oddly compelling piece are the
people in the crowd; the camera moves slowly, lovingly among them, seeming to caress
faces that could easily populate a medieval or Renaissance painting. A study in exile and
the persistence of the power of Christian imagery over the human mind, the work at
bottom may be all about homesickness.
Visually simple and emotionally vivid, Wandering Home by Israeli artist Sharon Paz deals
with the sheer strangeness of moving to a new home. The video shows a room in an
apartment. The view from two windows is like the view from a moving train as a barren
landscape speeds by; we’re given a glimpse of camels at one point. Meanwhile, the
furniture in the room undergoes a gradual transformation. At first the place has a .lived-in
look, with pillows and other small items scattered around, bathed in warm light from
several lamps. By the time the rushing vision of “outside” stops and we see the windows
of a brownstone directly opposite, all that’s left are a couch and desk, covered in white
sheets, and a single lamp, suddenly switched off. Home has been reduced to its absolute
state, as impersonal as a winter day.
Romanian artist Dan Acostioaei recently completed a residency at SPACES, in the
course of which he produced and exhibited a documentary video about Cleveland’s
Romanian community. Called Evidence of the Vanishing Points, that work was displayed
in the New York version of the current show and dealt with the vertigo of “changing
mental horizons,” as he put it. At Legal Aliens he shows a 2002 work titled Essential
Current Affair, which shows a couple embracing and kissing passionately, but hampered
by the fact they’re both wearing ski masks. It’s a fresh take on Irish artist Kathy
Prendergast’s classic 1999 knitted sculpture Secret Kiss, traveling the infinite distance
between desire and satisfaction. In other words, you can’t go home again.
Legal Aliens also includes works by New York émigré Shoba (originally from Sarajevo),
New Yorker Karina Aguilera Skvirsky (whose The Conversation involves a US cop and a
photographer speaking Italian), Gautam Kansara (born in England and now based in
New York), Jenny Vogel (a German-born New Yorker who tells the extraordinary tale of
an immigration scam involving the so-called Sri Lankan handball team0, as well as
Chilean artist Francisca Benitez, the Mexican collective Torolab, and the team of Dana
Levy (Israel) and Marc Lafia (New York). This last pair alone account for four of the
smaller screens on view at SPACES, and their recordings of Tel Aviv immigrants singing
songs of their native lands is well worth the extra viewing time they need. But Legal Aliens
is that rare show where everything is worth checking out. There are no false notes here,
and the songs they all end up singing are arias of the self, transposed to different keys in
[Free Times 2/7/07]