Pacific LimnApril 21, 2013
Three single-channel videos projected floor to ceiling constitute the current project Pacific Limn by Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries (YHCHI) at Kadist Art Foundation. Each video features the elements typical of YHCHI’s prior work: stories unfolding in text across a screen paired with a soundtrack of upbeat jazz tunes. Representing the culmination of a two-month residency in San Francisco, these works also introduce a new element, namely, images of places. Each video intermixes images of San Francisco with footage of urban spaces in other nations as the backdrop for the text-based projections and to represent those nations. WHY AM I AFRAID OF THE U.S.A.? and I TRIED TO DISCUSS COMMUNISM WITH THE CHINESE BUT NO ONE WANTED TO TALK TO ME focus on the U.S. and China respectively, while THE SECRET LIFE OF HARUMI takes on Japan (all works 2013). Bringing these three countries into a kind of visual dialogue is one means of limning the Pacific, but the texts that constitute the foreground of these video projections are so provocative—in ways both political and psychological—that I was left fumbling for my copy of Henri Lefebvre’s The Production of Space (1974). Where else would I find a means to bring together spatial practice, semiotics, and globalization in a way that elicits as much complexity as I found in these three videos?
There is a sense of deferral in Lefebvre’s text, as in the works of the art collective (featuring the work of the artists Young-Hae Chang and Marc Voge). If what this collective produces is digital literature, it owes more than a little to French poststructuralist theory. By using cities around the Pacific Rim as the background of their texts, providing a transnational dynamic, they have moved into Lefebvre’s territory. As Lefebvre wrote: “Every language is located in a space. Every discourse says something about a space (places or sets of places); and every discourse is emitted from a space.”I It seems that this is the level of YHCHI’s inquiry. As their texts intersect with urban spaces in these videos, a viewer seeks the connection between place and language. In so doing, a viewer aims to construct a discourse for each and perhaps a meta-narrative that might string them together. These are two distinct practices to consider.
Since 1999, YHCHI has produced a series of videos of language using Adobe Flash that they present on their website. They have shown works at the Tate and Centre Pompidou, among other museums. Their videos are a form of storytelling in which each word can be reduced to a sign, an effort to transcribe meaning in real time so that a viewer can string it together into a narrative. The words are synchronized to the music and so the passing of time is syncopated, and the meaning sometimes arrives with an absurdist twist or as a violent discovery. There is artistry in the way the language is designed, though the presentation is only black lettering on a white background. When this technique is employed against the background of a moving image, another dynamic emerges and, in Lefebvre’s words, “the language is located in a space.”
A viewer’s challenge is to read the works and also to take in the images and their relation to language. There is cacophony here, and the language sometimes comes so fast a viewer must struggle to read and interpret it, even without the background images. The process of synthesizing the words that speed onto the screen with the place represented is a dizzying mental challenge. The result is a form of displacement from the position a viewer actually occupies. In other words, the work transports a viewer through a multilayered text/image hybrid. The act of viewing the video produces a sense of place while reading the message forces a viewer to conceive of the meaning of that place; in this sense, language and place are mutually constitutive. If one examines the title image from Why Am I Afraid of the U.S.A.?, for example, the text asks a simple question, and the image suggests the answer might be the shadowy figures approaching and the car in the background that someone is being forced into. In real time, both the text and image proceed in different directions.
What conjoins the three videos that compose Pacific Limn? On one level, it is the technique employed and the form of displacement produced in all three works. Working as an international collective, YHCHI pushes our notions of here and there through grainy, low-definition images that connect the places represented even as other images emerge that distinguish the site of one work from another—such as a freeway in San Francisco or a subway in China. In this way, the videos provide a discourse on globalization but not one produced by science or expertise. This discourse exists as a representation, or representational space in Lefebvre’s terms. Pacific Limn is a work of art, but it also signifies the production of a transnational space that exists between the locations and stories narrated in the videos themselves. The punning of the title (“limn” for “rim”) functions doubly, referring to the speech pattern among Asian speakers of English who pronounce R as L while it suggests describing the various points of the Pacific Rim. Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries has invented a space that grazes the geography of the US, China, and Japan while positioning the viewers at their intersection. To find meaning in these videos requires a viewer to find herself in the midst of these jaunty, equivocating texts and the sites they illuminate.
Pacific Limn is on view at the Kadist Art Foundation, in San Francisco, through April 28, 2013.