1.15 / Review

Selections from the 2010 MFA Exhibition

By Dena Beard May 19, 2010

Perhaps rereading BorgesLabyrinths prior to attending the California College of the Arts (CCA) 2010 MFA Exhibition wasn’t the wisest idea. In the swelling crowd and the maze of cubicle-like spaces, Borges’ parables of non-linearity overlapped with the contingency of choices, making me wary of overdetermination. As a result—and a disclaimer—these “selections” are based on an entangled narrative of personal predilections and investigations. Two artists, however, navigated the unruly terrain of the exhibition, finding clever ways out of the labyrinth, both spatially and conceptually.

Malak Helmy's Records from the Excited State (2010) is tucked into a sidewall at the exterior of the space and seems bigger than its meager allotment. Six Kodak Ektagraphic AF-2 slide projectors are stacked on an industrial armature that stands at more than ten feet. Timed at one image per eight seconds, their projections fill a lateral outcropping of the wall, accompanied by that always seductive flashing, thunking, and clicking of obsolete technology. The created light shapes are irregular rectangles piled upon one another, imprecisely keystoned. Each moment of glancing light searches for its place in space and time, conversing back and forth with the advancing carousel, waiting for its image to drop, but, like a failed slideshow from a traveling relative, never quite realizes the full picture.

Helmy continues to play with this slippage between location, materiality, and technology in two adjacent digital video pieces. One video, Statements from the Compound (2010), focuses on how the linguistic production of space can prohibit the flexibility of an environment. The narrator’s recitations about the compound are echoed in a nearby wood-block sculpture, which was constructed using a software program that translated the grammar of his speech into three-dimensional objects. The second video, Notes from the Carbon Coast (2010), considers carbon as a metaphor for developing urban centers. According to the narrative, carbon can excite itself into a new state of being as a diamond, but will eventually regress to its lesser state. Alternately, carbon can also suspend itself in a state of constant excitement, where all things are possible. Both videos channel Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil (1983), satirizing the soothing

Malak Helmy. Notes from the Carbon Coast, 2010; digital video; 2:32 min. Courtesy of the Artist.

Hannah Ireland. The Proscenium, 2010; dance by Michelle Fletcher, May 6, 2010, 6-8:30 p.m. at California College of the Arts. Courtesy of the Artist.

narrative voice and montage of “illustrations” that delineate the documentary genre and successfully gesture toward ideas of geography and social structure without limiting visual resonance.

Similarly finding a niche in the labyrinth, Hannah Ireland’s piece involved a dancer performing The Proscenium (2010) above visitors’ heads in CCA’s atrium. This distance was amplified when I later learned that it was accompanied by a pre-recorded video of an analogous dance, shown at eye-level on a screen inside the doors. The Proscenium points to three kinds of movement: the responsive motions of a live performance, the everyday interactions of people within the space, and the document of choreography as it exists without interferences from the public. Hovering above us, the dancer reacted to our comings and goings, adding in some moves from the Moonwalk, Jumpstyle, and Madison, seeming to riff off of the dynamics in the atrium and goading us to join her.

Ireland has previously worked from YouTube clips, comparing the individual modifications made to popular dance and the odd vantage of watching a performance performed for and to personal computers. At CCA, the dancer oscillated between coy playfulness, ecstatic floor stomping, and lethargic rejection. These shifts felt decidedly pop cultural—reflected in the measured bodily distance between the familiarity of pop and the posturing of high art, between YouTube and live performance, between historical dance and contemporary “moves.” Recognizing and reclaiming these physical departures, The Proscenium bridged that chasm of unfamiliarity that separates so many of us from performance art.

As a final personal reflection on the exhibition, working as the MATRIX curatorial assistant with UC Berkeley graduate students on their MFA exhibitions for the past three years has been a tremendous exercise in managing expectations. And rightly so—nothing can quite compare to the knee-buckling anxiety caused by exchanging academic study for a labor that is only very rarely validated, critically or financially. Even so, the energy generated by emerging artists fuels dialogues in every facet of society; conversations begun in art classrooms inform and instigate San Francisco's utopian experiments, political interventions, and digital renaissance, renegotiating slightly the perceptual landscape with each new graduating class. Without them, we would be lost.


The 2010 MFA Exhibition was on view at California College of the Arts through May 15, 2010.

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