Jacqueline Hoang Nguyen (Brooklyn, N.Y./Stockholm, SWE.)
Ryan Park (Toronto, ON.)
September 13 – October 19, 2013
Between 13 September and 19 October 2013, Paved Arts held Outer Space, a show that put Jacqueline Hoang Nguyen’s multimedia exhibit, Space Fiction and the Archives, into dialogue with Ryan Park’s video installations: Rabbit and Dark is the Night (Voyager). United conceptually by the artists’ similar concerns with relationships between imagination and space, the show invited gallery visitors to consider some of the most fundamental ways in which we interact with space, broadly conceived. In Nguyen’s and Park’s works, “space” didn’t refer just to the deep, boundless “out there” of extraterrestrial planets and beings. That sense of outer space obtained, but the show examined local, boundaried spaces as well, from the disciplinary political space of the nation to the equally demanding formal and aesthetic space of the frame.
In Space Fiction and the Archives, Nguyen interrogates Canada’s image of itself as a welcoming space by comparing how two different groups of aliens occupied the national imagination in 1967, the year of the Centenary. Her exhibit combines archival materials, including reproductions of government documents, cultural and historical artefacts, and kitsch objects, to tell a story about how the people of St. Paul, Alberta, celebrated the national birthday—by building “The World’s First UFO Landing Pad.” Nguyen uses this minor event in Canadian history to challenge the official national discourse about immigration, the fiction of Canadian inclusivity and multiculturalism. Some aliens, her exhibit makes clear, are better welcomed than others. The Landing Pad, built as a monument to “western hospitality,” was meant to provide Martian visitors with an ideal place to touch down in Canada. Aliens from within planet earth have no such place to land: their access to national space is considerably more circumscribed than that of their extraterrestrial counterparts.
Nguyen highlights the functional, symbolic, and economic valences of the Landing Pad in order to make a subversive point about how the State views those who seek entrance into Canada’s so-called cultural mosaic. Prints of the St. Paul Journal underscore the multiple, sometimes contradictory, ways that the monument signified for the people of the town. The Landing Pad was counted upon to bring national, even global, fame to St. Paul. A headline from 25 May 1967 reads: “St. Paul Landing Pad Receives World Wide Publicity.” As a tourist attraction, the Landing Pad created its own culture industry. Mass-produced trinkets, bought and sold in the town gift shop, indicate the financial legacy of the event. Pyramid, a mixed-media sculpture that displays a souvenir plate bearing an image of the Landing Pad, and The Centennial Star, two inkjet prints that represent, in diptych, either side of a commemorative coin, invoke capital as the primary motivator of the “Centenary Idea.” So too, Nguyen argues, do economics govern how the State evaluates immigrants—as citizen-consumers, subjects who will (or will not) conform to the demands of capitalism. In Immigration Policy (point-based system), she duplicates the 1967 “Norms for Assessment of Individual Applicants” on a series six large acrylic plates. Categories like “Education and Training,” “Occupational Skill,” and “Knowledge of English and French” determine the degree to which an individual might be expected to contribute to the Canadian economy. Once their files reach the desks of government bureaucrats, immigrants aren’t people so much as they’re investments. The number they’re assigned corresponds not to the merits of their character, but to their capacity to buy and sell things like the souvenir plate.
The focal piece in Space Fiction and the Archives is a nineteen-minute video called 1967: A People Kind of Place. Stitched together with footage transferred from Super 8, 16mm, and 35mm films, the video is, in part, a documentary about the Centenary and the unveiling of the Landing Pad. The disruptive form of the collage complements the subversive qualities of the narrative, which develops along a familiar logic of the alien invasion film. One scene, lifted from a singularly schlocky sci-fi movie, takes place in the office of an Immigration Agent, whom we see seated at his desk. Across from him (but, importantly, outside the frame), a Martian invader wants to know whether or not he will be permitted into the country. The Agent describes the quota system of Canadian Immigration, telling him that although the country has room for a certain number of black, brown, and yellow people, “we don’t have any quota at all for green people.” The scene provides a key for understanding the satire of the exhibit as a whole. The notion of Canadian diversity operates according to a rigidly enforced ideology of racial and economic superiority, not some benign ethos of universal inclusion. The Martian says that he intends to stay in Canada “until mankind learns to love his neighbour.” With his application denied, he returns home a casualty of a system of immigration that views some people as more desirable than others.
Ryan Park’s video installations foreground different sets of relationships between discipline, imagination, and space. Rabbit and Dark is the Night (Voyager) combine philosophical reflections about outer space with performances that highlight the physical and formal demands of interior space—both the space of the frame and that of the gallery itself. In Rabbit, Park contorts his hands into the shape of the titular animal and holds them before a projector, casting a shadow puppet onto the facing wall. Over the course of the roughly twenty-minute video, he struggles to control the involuntary movements of his fingers and hands as his muscles cramp under the strain of trying to hold still. The image that he creates, suggestive of the “moon rabbit” of East Asian folklore, is at once abstract and visibly corporeal. A gestalt that looks different to each viewer (and in each viewing), the rabbit draws attention to the living form as it writhes and crumples in on itself. As Park struggles, micro-details like the curvature of the fingers, even individual nail beds, become pronounced. The viewer’s focus is thus divided. On one hand, the video encourages us to think about the different, culturally conditioned, ways that we imagine outer space. On the other hand, it calls to mind the discipline required to maintain form within the circular boundary of the projection lens.
Dark is the Night (Voyager) manages several vectors of discipline, imagination, and space. The installation – a roughly two-hour, continuous, single-shot video in which Park faces the camera and cranks a handheld LED light into the lens – disciplines the viewer at the same time as it functions as a performance of discipline itself. The physical turning of the crank generates light and sound: as Park gains and loses stamina, the light becomes more or less intense, while the soundtrack, comprised of music and sounds captured by the Voyager space probes, comes in and out of audibility. Like Rabbit, Dark is the Night (Voyager) renders the human form visible and invisible. Intermittently, Park’s torso appears behind the glow of the light, then disappears into the blackened, seemingly limitless, space out of which the light emanates. The viewer, standing or sitting in the pitch-black of screening room, occupies a similar space. With light shining into our eyes, we are immobilized and reminded of our immobility. What does it mean, Park asks us, to be singled out in (and of) the darkness, by someone – or something – on the other end of the light? What kinds of subject positions are available to those for whom the expansiveness of space becomes contracted to a single point of illumination?
For Nguyen and Park, the very notion of outer space entails an inner space within which things and people either do or do not belong. Whether imaginary or material, the boundaries that demarcate one space from another determine how we conceive of ourselves in relation to those on the other side of the divide. Access to space, perhaps the defining problem of our contemporary condition, carries certain privileges for some, and, of course, certain restrictions for others. To exist in space is to observe (and, maybe, to transgress) the limits of that space, to seek beyond where we are told not to travel. Some of us navigate space more easily than others. Those of us who attended Outer Space gained a new awareness of precisely how we move across and between the multiple, and multiplying, spaces that we inhabit.
~Text written by Justin Pfefferle