Anxious Times

The latest incarnation of "Bay Area Now" displays a restless discontent with the status quo

I'm not sure what I expected, really. Tear gas, flower-clogged gun muzzles, passionate speeches proposing radical resistance? Eighty thousand people marched down Market Street on Oct. 26 to protest military action in Iraq, carrying cunning signs that derided Bush, condemned the Patriot Act, vilified corporate America, and lamented our failure to broker a peace accord between Israel and Palestine. And yet the crowd was decidedly ... tepid. The problem, I decided finally, was that many of the participants didn't believe this march would make a damn bit of difference. Seemingly disillusioned by the failure of democracy in the 2000 elections, our historically vociferous activist community appeared to lack confidence that we can affect our nation's increasingly disturbing course.

The day of the march, coincidentally, also marked the opening of "Bay Area Now 3" -- Yerba Buena's astute triennial selection of local talent in the visual and performing arts -- which captures the uneasy mood of our populace in a profoundly disquieting way. This rich selection of provocative artworks in all media coalesces into a canny reflection of our times, impeccably curated and installed.

Chief Curator Rene de Guzman's introductory essay identifies the shared impulse of the exhibition's 30 visual artists as an introspective embrace of "the everyday, immediacy, and a certain kind of psychological retrenchment into the tangible." I would go further and deem the force a restless discontent with the status quo -- a need to comment on the growing moral, social, and economic bankruptcy of present-day America. Though the show is awash in the same perversely complacent anxiety that characterized the rally, the overall tone is more optimistic than one might imagine; it's happily devoid of work that proselytizes or whines.

Pillow Talk: Keith Boadwee's video is graphic, 
gratuitous, and utterly hilarious.
Pillow Talk: Keith Boadwee's video is graphic, gratuitous, and utterly hilarious.


Through Jan. 12

Admission is $6 general, $3 for seniors and students, and free for Center members


Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 701 Mission (at Third Street), S.F.

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Visitors are cued into the slyly challenging attitude of the exhibition even before entering the galleries. An anonymous, oversize paper parcel plays pink elephant with the lobby furniture, failing utterly to blend in yet scarcely identifying itself as art. It pokes fun at the hypervigilance urged by public service announcements in airports and BART stations since last year's terrorist attacks. The package inexplicably sports a crystal on a leather cord around its midsection -- perhaps representing a laughably futile New Age response to fresh fears. Christopher Garrett, the artist responsible for this newsprint behemoth, provokes further paranoia with the aptly titled Anxiety Is a Collective Effort, a drawing of dense jungle palms rendered on vinyl adhesive that obscures most of the ladies' room mirror. Upon leaning in over the sink, we're confronted not by our own comforting reflected gaze but by pairs of stereotypically sinister eyes, staring back from between the fronds.

Just a few steps into the exhibition, Bob Linder antes up with a deluxe coffin, suspended upside down from the ceiling. Titled Bring the Fun Back, it pretty much sums up the sea change between this show and 1999's iteration of "Bay Area Now," which I recall as a candy-colored celebration of San Francisco's high-tech prosperity. Lined in suffocating blue silk, with its polished chrome finish sporting a small U.S. flag, Linder's prefab coffin gets at the cushy -- and deadly -- insularity of contemporary America. Farther on, Jo Jackson's clunky but effective animated image of a spinning blue sphere skewers the aggressive imperialism and cultural ignorance of the present administration: The globe is devoid of any land mass, save the familiar beige contours of the United States.

Home Video, an animated short by Kota Ezawa, satirizes society's growing drive to survey and document every morsel of contemporary life with Webcams, handhelds, and security cameras. In a literal translation of the work's title, Ezawa's "camera" is trained on the utterly unremarkable exterior of a ranch-style suburban home. The scene is devoid of action, save for the cartoon clouds scudding by overhead and lights turning on and off in the windows. It's hardly compelling cinema, but it puts forth an interesting spin on our tendency toward exposé and surveillance -- reminding us that, by and large, there's really not much to see.

A less subtle critique of the invasive potential of technology is presented in Kenneth Hung's 60xI.CAM ™ Ultimate Interactive Web Cam Surveillance System for Homeland Security. In apparently deadpan fashion, Hung has masterminded an impressively ominous technique to enable governmental "monitoring" of our living rooms. He's constructed a fairly livable room right in the gallery, outfitted with an old couch, two TVs, a rowing machine, and a vacuum cleaner. Projected onto the wall is a virtual desktop that displays a Web site from which anyone in the world (including gallery visitors stationed at the mouse-equipped coffee table) can operate the equipment in the room. You can change the TV channel, play Ramboin the VCR, or set wailing a wall-mounted police siren -- you can even make George W. Bush's all-seeing eyes light up in his prominently positioned poster/ shrine. Hung's cheeky Big Brother scenario may be heavy-handed, but a more frightening prospect is that it's dead-on.

Felipe Dulzaides' Arriba de la Bola, or On the Ball, induces a more intimate sense of oppressiveness. Dulzaides' quietly insistent voice whispers the phrase "Arriba de la bola" rapidly and continuously into the viewer's headphone-clad ears, while his slightly frenzied face (on a small monitor placed at eye level) moves closer and closer to the camera. His lips nearly caress the lens, which is ultimately obscured by a thick cloud of breath and spittle. The artist's obsessively repeated injunction to "get on the ball" is both riveting and difficult to endure.

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