Bonjour mes amis,
In addition to my lit and music projects, I also do a lot of writing about art, film, food, werewolves, Tarot cards and Anarchism.
Today I am beginning to put together a report on zine culture for Nashville Public Radio and this afternoon I am interviewing a Pulitzer Prize winning photographer about his new book on preserving historical architecture in Tennessee.
A few months back I wrote a review of one of the most exciting visual arts exhibits I’ve seen this year. South Korean artist U-Ram Choe creates art from our near future, where organic life and mechanized objects have become one. His kinetic sculptures are not only creepy-fun marvels, they also create a compelling dialog about machine consciousness and the coming Singularity.
Loving the Alien: The Art of U-Ram Choe
Arthur C. Clarke’s 2010: Odyssey Two predicted this was the year when humanity would make contact with an alien intelligence. But if you’ve visited the Frist Center recently, you know the shocking truth: They’re already here.
The brainchild of South Korean artist U-Ram Choe, New Urban Species is an art show disguised as a natural history exhibit from the future, and it’s one of the most engaging displays Nashvillians are likely to encounter this year.
It starts with a blank title wall at the exhibit’s entrance, where the initial space is completely dark. If you’re confused by the seemingly empty gallery, that’s only the beginning: Choe has already pulled you past the event horizon of a chrome-plated tomorrow, where new-born machines turn their faces toward the sun and sea creatures take to the air as jet-engine hybrids. Further investigation of the dark space rewards the viewer with a flicker of light, then more and brighter lights. And then, the tiniest sound of creaking plastic.
Work “Una Lumino Portentum” is illuminated by bulbs at the centers of a several clear, floral pods, which are connected to a tangle of metal vines that connect the glowing garden to the gallery’s main wall. As the pods open and the lights brighten, shadows shift through the vines, and the entire display seems to slither and move. This first piece reveals the riddle at the center of Choe’s exhibit: Are these sculptures merely animated, or are they aware?
When approaching Choe’s pulsating paradoxes, it’s helpful to understand Korean culture’s trusting, interdependent relationship with robots: In 2006, the South Korean government announced a plan to place a service robot in every household by 2020. Robot assistants teach English classes in Korean schools, and the country’s 2007 Robotics Ethics Charter prevents abuse of robots by humans — and vice versa.
Reading the titles of the pieces in the gallery’s main space, you get the uneasy feeling that you’ve stumbled into some kind of nest: “Urbanus Female Larva,” “Urbanus Male Larva,” “Urbanus Female.” The wall labels read like entomological entries, but these beauties never buzzed in your grandma’s garden.
“Urbanus Female Larva” looks like a chrome arachnid hanging from a thin thread, its legs folded up and in, in a graceful, protective asana. Almost imperceptibly, the legs bend at multiple joints, separating from the creature’s thorax, before returning, the whispering whir of a tiny motor like the snore of a steely cicada. “Urbanus Male Larva” dangles on the other side of the space, then its down-pointing wings suddenly begin pumping like a pupa pushing itself from an invisible cocoon.
Every piece in the show is programmed on a timer, so a given visit to the exhibit will find the kinetic sculptures in various stages of stillness or activity. It takes about 30 minutes for all the pieces in the show to cycle through.
In the center of the gallery hangs “Urbanus Female,” the largest sculpture in the exhibit. Perfectly still for about 15 minutes, the shiny, metallic pod then opens with deft articulation into the final, wide-flung blossoming of a carnivorous paradox: a huge, mechanical plant with the capacity to devour its own gardener. At that moment, the wings of “Urbanus Male Larva” fully extend, as if the creature was attempting to dry its sky-seeking appendages in some unseen sun.
In his book Vehicles: Experiments in Synthetic Psychology, brain researcher Valentino Braitenberg demonstrates how human beings invest the increasingly complex behaviors of mechanical devices with a range of values and abilities including aggression, creative thinking, personality and free will, and how we project ourselves into these moving forms. Chou plays on this tendency so expertly that his illusion holds up to repeated viewings – visitors even whisper in the galleries so as not to disturb the “sleeping” pieces on display.
The Latin nomenclature and pseudo-scientific, didactic information that accompanies the show is Chou’s masterstroke. The pieces’ titles and descriptions read like a biology text, effectively completing the illusion.
“Jet Hiatus” is described as the mutation of a micro-machine and a junked jet engine. Its flower-like tail opens and closes with such utilitarian precision that one expects it to cruise the gallery like some sort of sky-fish – an ambitious evolver that simply skipped dry land and made a beeline for the wild blue yonder. Given the ravages of the recent, relentless rain in Nashville, that doesn’t sound like a bad idea.
Enjoy and leave comment!
Find out more about Nam June Paik, U-Ram Choe and more of Korea’s fine artists through our Sleepless Bookstore. All of your purchases support our Insomnia!
Joe Nolan <3