Like Wow

“From Baja to Bar Harbor” at the ICA@MECA
By CHRIS THOMPSON  |  July 19, 2006

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OH MY GOD (2003): by Sam Van Aken
The great Dave Hickey draws a fine distinction between two kinds of art viewing experiences. The first he calls “Wow! Huh?,” a scenario in which an initially powerful aesthetic encounter gives way to a void of meaning or a meaning that doesn’t matter much. The second, “Huh? Wow!,” describes the inverse. Here a puzzling introduction to the art event opens up into a provocative result.

Like any sophisticated theoretical apparatus, Hickey’s Wow-Huh/Huh-Wow framework can be adapted to address additional real-world applications, like those where the art is a head-scratcher from the start and never quite pans out into anything worthwhile (Huh? Huh?), and those that capture your senses, mind, and loins from the first moment and keep on keeping on (Wow? Wow!).

The Institute of Contemporary Art at Maine College of Art’s current exhibition “From Baja to Bar Harbor: Transnational Contemporary Art,” the last curatorial project undertaken by the ICA’s recently departed director Toby Kamps, has the feeling of an initiative whose inspiration didn’t find the perspiration to bring it into cohesion.
It’s an odd show in this sense, because the work of the artists themselves is dynamic — ending in Wow! whether it starts there or not — but there’s not much substance in the passages and relationships between them. The result is a project that feels less like a trip or a cut across the nation — either as a physical territory or as an imagined community — and more like a skip from one coast to the other in order to summer in Maine.

That said, the work is worth the trip.

Michele O’Mara’s 2002 remake of the 1983 film Valley Girl, also entitled Valley Girl, is, like, a masterpiece. Shot in low-quality video and punctuated by sloppy edits, its amateurish videography is what clinches its Wow-art status; O’Mara’s friends play the original actors, some of them with decent on-screen skills and others with artfully poor ones, laughing after delivering lines and thus demanding several jumpy cuts just in the scene where, for instance, valley girl talks to her stoner dad about how she likes Randy, but he’s just so weird. In fact it’s this kind of laughter that builds the work’s most interesting layer, the one that communicates to the viewer that for Valley Girl’s 21st-century actors, the original version is such a part of their heritage that it is impossible to render it faithfully.

Fellow Californian Julio Cesar Morales’s installation in the street gallery, commissioned by the ICA, meshes high-tech ethnography with 18th-century interior décor. His close studies of the pushcart vendors working the US-Mexico border, selling tortillas, churros, and other items that customers desire, morph into exploding silhouettes that unzip and reconfigure themselves across the surface of the space. What’s at stake in this dynamism is a borderland expanding to encompass all the territories it borders, in which everything is for sale, up for grabs, in process and in transit, pausing just long enough for the transaction of goods, bodies, fluids.

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