ATOM SUIT PROJECT 1997 by KENJI YANOBE; A RECENT HISTORY OF THE WORLD by ALEXIS ROCKMAN; WHERE THE LAND MEETS THE SEA by MARK DION; ie.: A (Not Im)partial View of ECOTOPIAS at YERBA BUENA CENTER FOR THE ARTS 12/6/98
by Eleanor and Emily Burgard
It’s a brilliant clear blue Sunday morning. My twin sister and I have with a slightly melancholy fatalism opened the dark claret-coloured velvet drapes of our flat; our lovers, Weltschmerz and Nostalgia, scurry away under the fierce solar onslaught. The cobwebs of our secret inner passions thus shaken out and swept away, we have no recourse, really, but to gird our loins, make up our faces, put on our creams and emollients, our hats & gloves, in short, the armour which shields our inner cores, and march out into Bright Day, to see what there is to see. In the streets, the winter sunlight lies tangentially flat against the curve of earth, and flattens the objects which reflect it. The shadows are everywhere, and pale, so we wander through a shadow-world, a shrouded landscape of empty automobiles, concrete walls and glare; an abandoned theatre-set lit by photons, electrons, metreons and zeums. Abandoned yet there are many people around us also walking: they are pale, transparent, faded, tinsel-covered; faint holograms of xmas crowds yet to come, projected by mistake into an early-December late morning. We pass blithely through these wavery scrims without resistance and are prepared to spend the whole Bright Day promenading alone with each other through a sad anachronistic carnival of ghosts - so we are startled - yes - to see another figure, up ahead, moving with equal elegance, equal solidity of presence. It’s Kenji Yanobe of course; who else would be wearing a bright yellow Atom Suit and be standing here under the cascading photons of the rich blue sky of Bright Day here in downtown San Chernobyl? He doesn’t see us; he’s completely engaged with his own act of observation, so he’s oblivious, he’s detached. He’s a photograph, after all. Well, a transparent one or several in boxes lit from behind, so there are photons cascading directly out at us and not merely reflected, which draws us into the (unflattened? unfolding?) event even though he’s detached, so there’s really no contact with him, we are not seeing things from his perspective, we don’t identify with him. But we are drawn into the scenes, because of the cascading photons and because he’s the right size, really, to be believable. He’s nearly the size he would be if he were as far away from us as he is from the camera, mounted one assumes on a tripod, which took these photos. It’s a trick of perspective, something institutionalized and western that his body has fallen into even though he’s Japanese, and something learned, institutionalized within ourselves, so that we are equally tricked, into believing that we are within the scenes as well. So in spite of ourselves my twin sister and I are there, then, standing in a (State-run) children’s nursery and a (privatized?) bumper-car rink while Kenji sits staring at a broken doll or broken dial or ferris wheel or inward, broken, staring. We’re all standing in the eerie silence staring at things outside ourselves. Because Kenji is so detached, so morbid, so sentimental, so adrift on the surface of the images he sees, we can’t ask him anything - how he feels, for instance. It’s lucky for us, then, that we’ve been pulled in to the same place, so we can look around for ourselves. We’ve been here before (well not the Ukraine but Russia and Poland, and there’s not much difference at the strata scraped open by these photos. While Kenji stares up at the immobile ferris wheel silhouetted against that awesome cumulus-and-deep-blue sky, we’re staring at the cracked street under his feet. These photos take many of their emotional qeues from these fissures in the asphalt, from the rusting springs of children’s cots, from mildewed ceilings and dented metal cars. But my twin and I think it likely that that asphalt was cracked before any breach of the containment field, that those springs were rusting, those ceilings mildewing, metal denting and wheel breaking down well before the warp-core imploded. So Kenji, brave (and smart) Kenji is there in his ridiculous 1950's movie spacesuit walking through Bright Day finding one sort of sentimental perspective, while we jolly forlorn twins (we distaff G&G?) stalk him in his Ukraine lair and, from a distance, find another sentiment, another perspective. What we are looking at are the stains and marks of the pre-meltdown world: pre-Chernobyl, pre-1989, at dents created by the colossal collisions of Ideology and Matter, of Revolution (Industrial & Communist) and Injunction (war, Stalin, natural resources), of desire and neglect. It’s about perspective: about how ideology is taught, how perception is learned, how the representation of perception is ideological. Well, that’s Alexis Rockman, over our shoulder, trying to butt in before we’re ready. And Mark Dion’s voice is heard, faintly, from the next room, as if he’s yelling from inside a sealed specimen jar, yelling something about neglect. But we are still captivated by Kenji, young and brave, his genitals proudly protected by a frightening-looking codpiece jutting from the crotch of his Atom Suit. He’s standing in front of some helicopters. The helicopters look air-worthy but the implication is that they are equally abandoned. Why “implication?” Well of course the preposterousness of the Atom Suit and the almost-schmaltzy sentimentality evoked in these photos does provoke us to imagine how frightfully easy it would be to pretend that these photos were taken in Chernobyl if they were not. Frightfully easy. My twin sister and I smile simultaneously. It’s an interesting experience, when you are sexually aroused, to know that someone next to you is equally aroused for the same reasons. My sister and I get excited by the idea that we may be being deceived. This excitement adds to our interest in Kenji’s photos, Kenji’s “mission.” But we choose to believe, to believe that brave Kenji is in fact being brave and true, because we want him to be thus. Make it so, Kenji, we cry subvocally, loins a-quiver and throats extended like tulips to the sun, like the wildflowers straining with life and beauty from the rich green grass around Kenji’s feet in the foreground of the photo of the silent helicopters. All this confusion of perspective; all this sentimentality and possible deception; all this radiant mystery in these photos of a place where Life goes on without us, an irradiated Eden from which we have been expelled. My twin sister and I are so fond of slightly melancholy fatalism that we embrace it again like an old friend as we turn away from Kenji and step into a very different world, one where Life does not go on without us, but rather dies out because of us. Alexis Rockman’s “A Recent History of the World” is a smallish mural painted in a style similar to various one-volume children’s illustrated geography and natural history encyclopedias, those which might for example feature cartoonish painted images of pygmies on the center of a broadly-drawn map of Africa. The mural of the United States on the wall of Kate’s Kitchen (the restaurant on Haight Street with the two adorable Czech waitresses who remind us so much of our younger selves) is a prominent local example of this cartographic style. Rockman’s map, which shows the probable influence of Alan Burdick’s research (e.g. the snake on the airplane wheel), depicts how human activity puts direct and indirect stress upon animal habitats and hastens the extinction of species. The suggestion here is that everyone is culpable, from the stereotypical white big-game hunter in Africa to the bikini’d coed celebrating Spring Break on South Padre Island to anyone driving across Interstate 70. Not exactly late-breaking news. What is important here is the style of representation, in that Rockman’s cartographic iconography is likely familiar to most anyone (lower-middle-class on up) receiving an elementary-school education in the U.S. between say 1955 and 1968. Rockman’s map is not about animal species migration as much as it is about how we learn and what we learn, ie. how we learn “facts,” ie. how we learn values, ie. how a culture’s ideology is communicated to its future citizens. When my twin sister and I were growing up in South America and Southeast Asia, we formed mental pictures of those parts of the world which we had seen, and our imaginations cobbled together mental pictures of the parts we hadn’t, from photos in books, from oral stories, from written descriptions, from clues & quotes and broadly-painted maps with cartoonish pygmies and elephants. It was a benign picture of the world: we were members of one of this world’s most privileged and admired cultures, the post-War American Imperial culture, and the world and our own futures swooned below our feet like two giddy young Victorian girls. We matured quickly, gained experience both rough and refined, and attempted to live our lives with moral awareness and ethical integrity; we became highly-educated as well as “street-smart” but it wasn’t until just a few short years ago that we realized that we still held fond hopes for the future (our own and the world’s) which were situated within and generated by mental landscapes which were by now simply and completely innaccurate. In our mind’s eye, the skyline of Djakarta was still utterly flat and green, with only the singular spire of the Hotel Indonesia (the only place one could buy ice cream in the entire city) rising higher than three stories. So the frame of the movie playing in our minds was predominantly filled with the blue of sky, the green of tropical forest and the brown of mud and monsoon-swollen canals. Water buffalo will always outnumber people in our memories, but reality is now far different, and the blue sky is obscured by the stained grey of cheap concrete, the green of the forests has long been cleared away with axe and fire, and the mud is skinned over with the darker grey of (already-cracking) asphalt. There are billions more people now and the world pictured in the maps in the encyclopedias of our childhood is gone: dead, skinned, burnt, covered with concrete or fallen to plague or to the teeth of the starving or to the greed of the well-fed. And the cartoons of cute gorillas and ostriches, the drawings of gold, oil, uranium and lumber waiting to be harvested, the iconography of beef cattle, fossil fuels, the curved arrows of the “voyages of discovery” have helped us learn to help ourselves to the world’s bounty in accordance with our ideologies of accumulation, categorization, colonization, market economy, hegemony, heirarchy and bureaucracy. Here sister and I must turn away from the mural which taunts us with the savage and bloody consequences of the lessons we innocently learned as children; “melancholy” would not be the word here; a rather deeper sort of sorrow pervades us as we move on with unsteady steps towards the gallery from which we can again faintly discern Mark Dion’s - admonition? reproach? entreaty? - “neglect! neglect!” We manage to circumnavigate Dion’s installation, to acclimatize ourselves to a scene which reminds us of nothing so much as our grandfather’s hairdressing salon on the North Side of Chicago in the 50's. The moldy patinas, the (implied) smells, the sense of neglect, decay, abandonment, the beauty of the no-longer-useful, the poignant paradox of the sturgeon’s lidless eyes staring out at us from a jar of formaldehyde while we stare back, all of us trapped here in an abandoned theatre set with the lights (of this Bright Day) going out, each of us wondering where it is that we are, exactly, and how did we get here, and what on earth are we supposed to do now?