Monday, July 1, 2013

Review: Miao Xiaochun: The Real in the Virtual

Miao Xiaochun: The Real in the Virtual
Dennos Museum, Traverse City, Michigan
Sept. 30, 2012 – Feb. 10, 2013

Billed as his “first major solo exhibition in the US,” Miao Xiaochun: The Real in the Virtual occurs in the most unlikely of places. The Dennos Museum in Traverse City, Michigan, a resort community of less than 150,000 residents and six hours north of Chicago, has built itself upon an ill-suited permanent collection of Inuit art largely paired with exhibitions by local artists. To find a video installation by multidisciplinary Chinese artist Miao Xiaochun in this location is unexpected, to say the least. For it to be his first major show at a US museum seems somewhat unfortunate.
Squeezed into one darkened room no larger than 2,500 square feet are four of Miao’s video works: Disillusion, RESTART, The Last Judgement in Cyberspace and Microcosm. The pieces are projected onto each of the four walls; the viewer watches with his or her back to a central room divider topped with projectors and speakers. While we can choose to narrow our visual focus to the video directly in front of us, unfortunately this is not true of the accompanying sound tracks to each video. Two works have their music turned down so low that it is essentially non-existent; another utilizes a feeble attempt at focusing sound to the viewer seated below via a hanging plastic dome, and the room overall is dominated by the volume of the fourth film. This loss of integral audio for three of the four works diminishes the experience, and the condition of the room overall limits the viewer’s ability to immerse himself in each work and absorb the artist’s full intent and desired impact.

As for the works themselves, having all four of Miao’s pieces exhibited together is a tremendous and immersive experience. Disillusion is a contemplative dance of shimmering biological forms reminiscent of Chagall’s dream-like compositions. Linear plotting and shimmering surfaces both imbue forms with transparency, delicacy and transiency. Juxtaposed against the hard surfaces and massive forms of industrial and military machinery, the soft and small organic forms of man and animal are exposed for the ephemeral, tenuous existence that we try not to think about on a daily basis. A pietà emerges as one of Miao’s self-representative figures grieves over a slipping, dissolving form made of bubbles that he tries futilely to grasp in his arms. I found this to be an elegant and contemplative piece that would have been made more so by the proper isolated environment and audible soundtrack.
RESTART was a well-matched companion work to Disillusion. While again the loss of the artist’s chosen music was noticeable and detrimental, the imagery itself was rich, the scenery more tangible, and the metaphors well-defined. Miao’s use of one figure only, his own image, multiplied many times to represent every individual in the work, enhances the idea that we humans are also multiples, duplicates of each other, a mass of humanity for whom the individual is significant on a very small scale but in the greater scheme has more impact as a part of a greater whole. Thus, each replicated figure labors united, digging and building and doing battle and uncovering the archaeology of our existence. Each layer of humanity we uncover simply shows us the previous layer of ourselves as components of the constant flow of life. The fantastical evolution of Miao’s nature takes surreal paths that evoke the work of Hieronymus Bosch more so even than Microcosm, the video based on the painter’s The Garden of Earthly Delights.

In RESTART I found the most satisfaction in the artist’s reflection on the History of Art. Bosch’s fantastical characters, Gericault’s Raft of Medusa, and other familiar scenes provide the landscape for this particular human experience. Most stunning was the skeletal cathedral environment surfaced entirely in a Delft blue pattern. Similarly-decorated figures climbing through its elegant and airy heights engage in a captivating dance; this clever visual texture was one of many rich surfaces of marble, steel, ice and clouds used to create a truly visual symphony.
The Last Judgement in Cyberspace immerses the viewer in Michelangelo’s masterpiece from the Sistine Chapel, with each figure in the original painting represented by Miao’s image of himself. Michelangelo’s vivid hues have been replaced by a monochromatic grey palette, so there is nothing to distract us from the confused, querying humans floating as they await their fate. While I admit to missing the context of coloration and earthly landscape in order to help maintain my orientation within the animated composition, the fear and confusion among the falling, floating, groundless figures was more evident by the removal of any real visual grounding. Recomposed in three dimensions, the viewer travels throughout the scene and visits various groupings within the original painting: the angels blowing their horns, the figures holding the cross and the crown of thorns; as the viewer we pause amidst each group and have a brief moment to both experience their perspective on the event as well as their confusion as to their role in it. As in Miao’s other works, the singularity of a person is ultimately meaningless and carries minimal impact; it is as a whole that we affect a collective human experience. Here, the personal experience is understandably one of fear, disorientation and doubt, as is how we commonly perceive our inevitable demise.

The final work in the Dennos exhibition is Microcosm, based on Hieronymus Bosch’s painting The Garden of Earthly Delights. It is to this work that the majority of the room’s resources are dedicated, its sound system invading the other works and dominating the largest portion of the room. But it is arguably the most significant of the four works; the richest in visual texture and symbolism, perhaps the most profound. We are presented with symbols as simple and provocative as an apple, referencing the Tree of Knowledge, and da Vinci’s innovations in humankind’s progress evoke the struggle between base survival and advancing technology. We draw from nature, create from nature, and return to and feed it in the end. Have we built something so large that we are insignificant within it? Miao’s representation of Bosch’s allegories reflect this modern dilemma.

For a community that has less exposure to contemporary and multidisciplinary art than its siblings to the south, Chicago and Detroit, this is on the one hand a peculiar exhibition to bring to the museum’s audience. To its credit, and perhaps to give it the benefit of the doubt, I applaud the Dennos for mounting this show in spite of its many significant shortcomings and hope that it opens the door to more adventurous future programming.