Mind Over Blather 

Stephanie Ognar and MSCHarding/Jacob Hashimoto: Armada/Jacob Hashimoto: An Infinite Expanse of Sky

Stephanie Ognar and MSCHarding

at Temporary Services, through May 10

Jacob Hashimoto: Armada

at the Chicago Cultural Center, through June 6

Jacob Hashimoto: An Infinite Expanse of Sky (10,000 Kites)

at the Museum of Contemporary Art

By Fred Camper

Several years ago I came across an exhibit of tableaulike installations using model-railroad miniatures at Peter Miller Gallery. As I was wondering whether the artist, Michael Ashkin, was anything more than a hobbyist, I began to notice such tiny features as the tire tracks he'd made behind a miniature truck in a sandy field. Close inspection revealed similar details in every piece--the mark at least of a genuine obsessive. These additions also gave each work an almost preternatural vividness not typically found in basement model-train landscapes.

Indeed, such small extras are often crucial to art that's mostly not handmade. Stephanie Ognar's 12 wonderful flip books at Temporary Services might be mistaken for the predictably narcissistic products of a young art student--and she is about to receive an MFA from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, just as she turns 25. Each book depicts Ognar herself in images printed from short videos. Playing at flirting with the viewer--looking out, yawning, taking off a coat--she raises familiar issues of women's self-representation, of who controls the way a woman is seen, of the spectator as voyeur.

Flip books have been pop-culture novelties for a long time, but Ognar gives us both the central action, relating to the flip book's illusion of movement, and quieter moments that offer a sense of the living person behind the woman on display. Flip Book Glance, for example, begins with Ognar turning toward the viewer and looking directly out, then smiling and looking downward. Finally she turns away, and for the last few seconds--about a third of the book's "running time"--we see the mostly immobile back of her head. In Flip Book Bed we see Ognar apparently asleep, head and hand on a pillow. But before she predictably turns toward us and opens her eyes, she extends her forefinger.

Details such as these are distractions from the flip book as an amusing little spectacle. Ognar's flirtation with the viewer is intertwined with elements not normally associated with attractiveness. The finger also hints at a phallic joke, as does the spittle Ognar shoots upward in Flip Book Spit, a white stream against a black background that seems an obvious reference to semen.

Ognar takes explicit control over when and how she's seen in Flip Book Bath. We're first shown her face underwater from above, blowing bubbles--an action that's not necessitated by her time submerged but that provides visual interest and asserts her presence before her face breaks the surface. This woman on display in her tub also breathes.

The short videos from which these books were made were shot by Ognar's boyfriend under her direction. To make the books she digitized the videos, then printed out successive frames, generally unmanipulated, on a computer printer. The color printouts have a sensuality and photographic immediacy that help give her images their seductive power; in conceiving of the books, Ognar says she was thinking about her own occasional flirting as an analogy for "the artist trying to get the audience's attention."

Holding the books in one's hand and bringing the figure "to life" by flipping the pages increases the viewer's sense of an intimate connection with the subject. But rather than merely trying to seduce--none of Ognar's actions is blatantly sexual, and she never appears nude--Ognar plays with various boundaries, presenting both her face and the back of her head, trying to control the viewer's gaze as she emerges from her bath but also ceding control: it's the nature of the flip book that the viewer creates the movement. In Flip Book Berry Ognar takes a strawberry out of her mouth--but the viewer can reverse the action by simply flipping from the back. (In the original video, Ognar says, she was putting the berry into her mouth.)

Changing direction is only one of several kinds of control the viewer has; the other chief one is the speed of flipping, which determines the speed of movement. That speed almost always varies during the book's running time, making one aware of moving imagery's source: a succession of still frames. And holding the book in one's hand creates an illusion of possession more direct than is common in film viewing. While an actor's presence on the big screen can be overwhelmingly intimate, Ognar establishes a relationship that's no less intimate but in some ways more equal and more thought provoking: one cannot forget one's own direct participation in the creation of movement. Ognar makes intelligent use of this aspect of the flip book: as one holds her image in one's hand, making her move, she emerges almost confrontationally from her bath.

Two of Ognar's longer books are even less dramatic than most of the others. The coat Ognar removes in Flip Book Coat is fairly elaborate, including a fur-trimmed hood, and taking it off is suggestive of a striptease. But after she removes the coat she simply stares out at us, her main motion an occasional blink. Her stare seems to say that she could take off more but won't; it establishes her autonomy, her equality with the viewer--whereas the voyeur usually alternates between a dominant and subservient relationship to the performer. Like the extended finger, these final seconds are a way of saying that one shouldn't have to perform to get the viewer's attention. And in Flip Book Stare the main motion is in fact Ognar's blinking.

If Ognar's flip books are extraordinary for the way they encourage contemplation of the relationship between viewer and image, MSCHarding's sound and image installation in the same show, Untied States of America, is a bit mind numbing. An audiotape of what sounds like a respirator is heard while a single slide of a respirator is shown. The original plan was to project three slides of the respirator successively, but due to technical problems the gallery is only showing one; as it is, the persistent clicking on the audiotape seems an unintended reference to the malfunctioning projector, which never clicks to the next image.

Like Ognar's flip books, Jacob Hashimoto's installation at the Chicago Cultural Center--Armada, a giant grid of identical small boats with identical blue-and-white sails--introduces movement to the gallery. Hanging by strings from rocking armatures installed near the ceiling, these sailboats rise and fall as if waves were passing beneath them. There are 24 columns in four groups, each six-boat-wide group controlled by a single arm that rocks back and forth. Most of the comments I overheard from viewers were favorable, though one person walked away complaining, "I'm getting seasick."

I don't mind getting seasick for the sake of art, but I do mind art that's less and less rewarding the longer one looks at it. If Ognar's provocative, liberating flip books establish a complicated relationship between artwork and viewer, Armada is even more mind numbing than MSCHarding's installation. The longer I looked at it, the more I thought, "This is really dumb."

Armada made me wonder if one could speak about intelligent and dumb art with some precision. Most definitions of intelligence suggest that it depends on the ability of the mind to compare things, and to do so with some flexibility; Jean Piaget held that intelligence in older children goes beyond "a mere schema of behavior...various possible physical movements in near space" to make use of "formal operations" that involve thinking "beyond the present" to consider "implications" and even "contradictions." Filming and photographing oneself has been a popular choice among art students for a couple of decades, but such work is often circumscribed by the adolescent narcissism that seems its primary motivation, remaining "stuck" in the artist's assertion of his physical presence "in near space." Ognar's flip books may also spring from that impulse, but she goes beyond trying to make herself seem seductive to create a complex, generalizable relationship between work and viewer: her books made me think about performances in commercial films, women's imagery in the media, and my own surreptitious glances at people in public places. Her work is intelligent because it goes beyond its particulars to examine--and encourage the viewer to examine--their implications.

By contrast Hashimoto's sailboats just go up and down, up and down; there seems to be little coherence or integrity behind his organization of the 768 boats' motions. While some of the boats rise and fall dramatically, as if a wave were truly passing beneath, others--those closer to the center of each armature--display little movement. And though waves seem to pass under the long columns when viewed from one side, from the other one sees the different rocking motions of the four groups, apparently never in sync, looking more like the product of a machine than of the sea. And it's not as if Hashimoto creates an interesting contrast between machine-made movement and motions based in nature. The piece seems stuck in its mechanical details, and once the inconsistencies in the movement undercut the initial impression of waves, Armada collapses into the mindless rocking of armatures.

Just as we better understand a great artist by viewing multiple works, so Hashimoto's Armada helps "illuminate" his An Infinite Expanse of Sky (10,000 Kites), hung from the ceiling of the cafe in the Museum of Contemporary Art. Each miniature kite is printed with a design of clouds and sky in blue and white--which made me wonder whether this former Chicagoan has a somewhat, um, limited palette. But as a piece of interior decorating this work is not bad, creating a kind of arched ceiling for the long and boxy room, introducing some texture and a little movement into a sterile metallic space.

The problems with An Infinite Expanse of Sky as an autonomous artwork become evident when one concentrates on it. The numbing repetition of the cloud design--so like that in Armada--is hardly ameliorated by flipping the orientation of some of the kites. And the places where they've gotten tangled together, producing "holes" in the design, read more like mistakes than the interesting interventions of some random process. Moreover, the "joke" of introducing the sky would have worked better in a basement: even on the grayest of rainy days, the sky outside the cafe windows is infinitely more supple, more full of depth and variety, than Hashimoto's mindlessly repeating design.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): uncredited photos.

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