On separating hunter from prey in Phaan Howng's wryly subversive installation wonders
By Bret McCabe
Dec 06, 2016 | 10:00 PM
Phaan Howng's "Biological Controls: If It Bleeds We Can Kill It" may be the closest you can get to a waking hallucination in Baltimore right now. The installation occupies the one-room project gallery on School 33's second floor, though the verb "occupy" barely conveys how utterly the installation transforms the room. For this piece Howng has covered every surface in the gallery with a series of acrylic, acrylic gouache, and spray paint on paper paintings. Each composition features swirling paisleys of Day-Glo reds, pinks, blues, yellows, greens, and oranges painted in lines and circles that streak and curve into each other. Think the concentric-ish circles of tree rings plaid with the topsy-turvy designs of a tree's bark, all rendered in the hot color palette of the clothing barely covering the vibrating bodies at a warehouse show featuring dance-punk bands and DJs in the mid-2000s. At first blush it's both LOL and WTF?
To get a taste of what Howng might be thinking, follow the instructions on the small sign outside the gallery to take off your shoes and head inside the room. Every flat surface is wallpapered in Howng's eye-disorienting compositions. Near one wall is a small assortment of objects—a few shapes that resemble logs, one suspended from the ceiling, and a bench—that are also completely giftwrapped in Howng's paper paintings. Two double-sided versions of these paper paintings serve as the curtains blocking the entrance to the gallery and once inside, save the vertical slit of light passing between those two curtains, the eyes drown in Howng's colorful riot.
Fans of 1980s actions flicks will recognize Howng's cheeky cultural reference point even before stepping inside—director John McTiernan's 1987 film "Predator," in which a small American special forces unit is tasked with rescuing hostages ostensibly being held by guerillas in some unnamed Central American country only to find themselves stalked by an alien warrior who hunts humans for sport. A number of spectacularly graphic deaths ensue before the predator is defeated by Arnold Schwarzenegger's Dutch. The predator can see in a kind of thermal-imaging vision that renders the world as a relief map of color-coded heat signatures that Howng recreates in her designs. The installation's title comes from one of Schwarzenegger's customary tough-guy quips after finding a bit of the predator's antifreeze hued blood: "If it bleeds, we can kill it."
The one-sheet accompanying the installation says Howng is alluding to the movie, "where the roles between humans and the environment are reversed and the environment becomes the Predator and humans are the hunted," a cinematic articulation of her interest in a "nature-built defense system." That's an idea she also explored in her window installation included in the Current Gallery group show "Devil May Care" from earlier this year. (The high-octane paintings from another artist in that show, Joe Crawford Pile, can be found in School 33's "Joyride," which runs concurrently downstairs.) For "Devil," Howng's similarly brightly colored installation, titled "Landscape no. 586-Lamentation," recalled a coral reef and included various shapes and forms that brought to mind sea anemones, those gorgeous predators of ocean surfaces. In this installation the idea of nature's defense system feels indebted to something that exists in the natural world.
With 'If It Bleeds We Can Kill It' she's winningly flirting with sci-fi and its speculative scenarios, and it introduces a biting edge to her visually luxuriant vocabulary. And it's all about what is seen when being looked at. Sitting inside Howng's installation is initially disorienting, but the eye-brain connection eventually adjusts. Yes, every surface is covered with this intense design scheme but those logs are obviously objects wrapped in this paper and this bench is covered in the same.
Now, if you've got one, take out a smartphone and start looking at everything through it—or, better yet, shoot a video panning slowly about the room. Onscreen, Howng's designs flatten and what's only initially confusing IRL becomes impressive camouflage. Even more dramatic, anything not covered in this pattern stands out like bloodstains on white sheet. If you've got a friend with you, take a photo of him or her sitting on the bench. The person will be engulfed by an over-busy indulgence of colorful designs, but the eyes will immediately lock on the person in the composition.
Let's pause a minute to remember some of the themes going on in McTiernan's "Predator," a film that helped birth the military horror genre that the '80s fostered (see also: the "Alien" franchise, which in the 2000s was hybridized into the "Alien vs. Predator" series). "Predator" was yet another film featuring a hetero white-male hero triumphing over seemingly impossible odds, a Western motif that was born again hard during the President Ronald Reagan era. More interestingly, a number of critics have noted the racial and political themes of 1980s America coursing through the film, from the Central American guerillas (see: Nicaragua, El Salvador) setting to the predator himself, a figure both visually coded black—Stan Winston, the special effects artist who created the predator's look, famously said he was inspired by a painting of a Rastafarian warrior—and literally masking a black performer, the late, 7-foot-2-inch Kevin Peter Hall.
Keep that in the back of the brain as you consider the aspect of the film that Howng explicitly references: how the predator sees. The film's title is also the brand name for the remote piloted aircraft created by the partnership of the CIA, the United States Air Force, and the defense contractor General Atomics. Since 2001 and the War on Terror, the General Atomics MQ-1 Predator has become the preferred drone for targeted strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan's tribal areas, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen (among other places). In "Sow What You Reap? Using Predator and Reaper Drones to Carry Out Assassinations or Targeted Killings of Suspected Islamic Terrorists," which appeared in the May 2012 issue of the George Washington International Journal of Law, law professor Thomas Michael McDonnell writes:
"Science fiction writers long ago thought of the creation of huge robots of war that would fight each other, reducing human casualties and making victory and defeat depend on the machines' strength rather than on human beings' grit, wit, and willingness to shed blood. Although not intended for targeting an opposing UAV, the Predator Drone is, nonetheless, a robot of war. The Predator MQ-1, the most common weaponized drone used by the United States, is about the size of a general aviation aircraft. Depending upon wind, altitude, and ordnance weight, the Predator can remain flying from about nineteen hours to forty hours without refueling. It can fly up to an altitude of 25,000 feet (7,620 m.), with a cruising speed of eighty miles per hour (129 km/h.). The Predator is equipped with highly advanced radar and infrared cameras. Imaging radar is able to produce a high-resolution picture at night; the synthetic aperture radar provides images in all kinds of weather conditions. As one pilot explained, with the infrared cameras, 'you can actually see somebody smoking from about 25,000 feet.'"
In the McTiernan's film, explosives expert Poncho asks Dutch, Do you remember Afghanistan? The future Governator replies, "I'm trying to forget it." Both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations probably hope we are trying to forget their drone programs as well. Howng's 'If It Bleeds We Can Kill It' suggests that the high-tech, heat-seeking predators that stalk humans for the sport of it aren't coming by spaceship from some alien planet. They're already here. Nature's doing its best to hide from this threat, and the target is us.