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.
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 Rambo in 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.
Several of the works in “Bay Area Now 3” are laments to lost innocence. In the glass passageway visible from Mission Street, Japanese-American artist Midori Harima has installed a quiet but lovely paper sculpture of a young girl peering at her reflection in the mirror. A poem of Harima's own composition titled “This State” is mounted on the wall beside the girl. It includes the following lines: “All things have their own meaning and purpose/ They are never mine/ I have nothing to do with them/ Conditions are established with no relationship to my intentions.” In the context of these words, the girl seems to be examining her own image in an attempt to reconcile her private universe with the revelation of her public powerlessness — a harsh coming of age that echoes the dispirited atmosphere of the rally.
The deserted nocturnal playgrounds of Aaron Plant's rich color photographs are disproportionately spooky; despite their neutrality, they suggest the horror of abducted children to anyone who follows the nightly news. This effect is heightened by the haunting music-box melody that emanates from Jona Frank's three-screen video installation, Bravo Company Squad Drill Competition, set up nearby. Frank explores the equally creepy (and equally neutral) world of high school drill teams, in which miniature soldiers with perfectly expressionless faces move through routines that seem half West Point, half Funky Chicken.
In the upstairs galleries, the tone is decidedly lighter. William Swanson's appealing abstractions climb the wall opposite the stairwell, while Jon Santos aptly evokes San Francisco's DJ culture with a balcony sculpture that mixes hip graphics (and a profusion of cardboard) with a steady pulse of scratches and drips.
Desiree Arlette Holman's video installation pours on the sugar until your puckered pout curls into a smile. She's filled the room with birdhouses, the portal of each revealing a tiny video of Holman, dolled up Snow White-style. Our protagonist nuzzles and strokes animated lovebirds as they coo at her adoringly. In one vignette, she professes to a yellow canary that she loves it so much she could just eat it up, and proceeds to do just that — letting a feather escape with her delicate burp.
An unexpected highlight of the show is Keith Boadwee's graphic, gratuitous, and utterly hilarious video Actions 758-817, which documents a series of the shamelessly scatological artist's performances. Be forewarned, Boadwee's work is not for the quick to blush. One photograph features a visibly erect Boadwee clad in only cowboy hat, boots, and a T-shirt that reads “I left my heart in San Francisco.” Another shows the name “Molly Ringwald” scrawled across his backside in black ink — the “o” circling his anus. In the video, clips of these stunts are cut with shots of two papier-mâché snowmen representing art-world insiders, who trade tidbits like “I once heard someone say that Keith Boadwee was self-absorbed. A narcissist. But I just think he's a really great artist. What do you think?” I've heard (and believed) the same things, but I also find Boadwee's art to be winningly innocent, almost painfully self-aware, and funny as hell.
“Bay Area Now 3” successfully presents a series of specific, personal, and often tangential responses to the cultural conditions that define this moment. It won't speak to everyone: The demographic of the artists represented is overwhelmingly young, liberal, and well-educated. But take into consideration that this description matches a sizable percentage of the Bay Area's population, and it's safe to say the show has hit its mark. At its best, this exhibition reminds its audience that complex problems can't be challenged adequately with catchy slogans; there's a huge puddle of gray between the “axis of evil” and “no blood for oil.” Recognizing and sharing a more complicated vision of the world, as these artists do, may be the most valuable form of protest we have.