No aspect of The Contemporary's relaunch sounds like a guaranteed crowd-pleaser, but it is a wild success
By By Michael Farley
Mar 10, 2015 | 11:07 AM
The Contemporary is back.I find myself at a loss for words that do justice to how fucking awesome that is. We haven't had a dedicated contemporary art museum putting on shows in this city since 2012. When the museum unexpectedly shuttered that year, its absence felt less like a void and more like a gaping wound. The museum has sponsored a series of talks over the last year, but now it's back, actually exhibiting work. And it's amazing.
Director Deana Haggag (full disclosure, a close friend) took a big risk with the revamped Contemporary's first exhibition: Victoria Fu's "Bubble Over Green." On paper, the project doesn't sound like what one would expect from the institution. Fu is a Southern California artist whose work is primarily centered around the formal and ontological considerations of moving images. Her practice isn't overtly political. There's no mission statement about "engaging the community" or "institutional critique." At a time when the battle to preserve Baltimore's modernist architecture seems like a lost, unpopular cause, The Contemporary has temporarily occupied—and extensively renovated—the brutalist KAGRO building on the corner of North and Maryland to host the exhibition. No aspect of The Contemporary's relaunch sounds like a guaranteed crowd-pleaser.
But the gamble has paid off. I've visited "Bubble Over Green" three times, and entering the space always feels magical. High above head level, a seamless band of video is projected from one end of the room to the other. At times, the projection mirrors the building's translucent windows. Suddenly, the image skews, breaking suspension of disbelief. As if to remind the viewer that we're looking at a digital representation of the architecture, footage of the exterior harvested from Google Street View awkwardly jerks around the wall. In separate video layers, faceless figures roam independently of the background. Hands appear and apply paint, bubble wrap, and touch-screen-esque gestures to the surface. Sporadically, undiscernible images dart across the floor from separate projectors. It's totally hypnotic.
In an artist talk before the opening reception, Fu describes her work as "my best attempt at destroying narrative" to challenge cinema's dominance as "the anchor around which we situate ourselves in time-based media." She creates layers of obvious post-production effects as "a painterly way of thinking about illusionistic space." Far from coming across as a fussy formalist exercise, however, "Bubble Over Green" is really, really fun. It's rare to see process-based video work that can hold my admittedly short-spanned attention. Here, though, I could lose myself for hours. The anonymous hands cycling through the familiar motions of swiping a screen and painting give the piece an implied interactivity. The viewer can't help but identify with the "protagonist." This—combined with the immersive scale of the ever-changing field of light—almost makes me feel like I've fulfilled my lifelong fantasy of visiting the Holodeck from "Star Trek." In a totally unexpected way, "Bubble Over Green" might be the most accessible project The Contemporary has ever staged, all while functioning equally successfully on a heady conceptual level.
A huge part of the show's intrigue is the building itself. The project evolved out of four site visits Fu made from across the country over the course of several months. Meanwhile, Ginevra Shay, The Contemporary's program manager, oversaw the restoration of the KAGRO building—removing walls, drop ceilings, and carpeting to restore the space to its minimal, churchlike splendor. The project presented challenges as one of Fu's first ventures into the realm of site-specific installation: "What happens when architecture is involved, but not as a discursive element? Are there shades of site-specificity that I don't know the terms for?" Apart from the projection that dominates the main space, Fu installed blue gradient film over the windows in the rear of the building. Depending on the time of day, these humorously translate the sky into a digital effect being imposed over the cityscape outside. In front of the windows, an animated neon sign depicts a hand cycling through the "enlarge" reverse-pinching gesture as if the vista were an image on an iPad screen. The arrangement suggests a mutability of the built environment, but also an almost sympathetic futility. As a happy accident, the University of Baltimore's new Angelos Law Center that I affectionately call "Cube 2: Hypercube" is visible in the background. It looks like someone Photoshopped a chunk out of the Midtown skyline, revealing the transparency layer below.
This strange relationship between the building-as-context, moving-image-as-environment, and changing cityscape is the key to the project's curatorial triumph. Without directly addressing it, the artwork is situated in a site of flux. Around this strange little building—equally bunkerlike and visually permeable from different vantage points—the light and neighborhood are constantly changing. Fu's digital surfaces cycle through layers upon layers of their own construction and deconstruction, destabilizing the idea of architecture as a static constant. There's as much uncertainty in the processes depicted as there is about the fate of the very walls they are projected onto. In her desire to break with the conventions of cinematic representation and the idea of video inhabiting "the black box in the white cube," Fu has actually returned the moving image to one of its earliest cultural associations: cinema as place. Before streaming content and home entertainment systems, people went to the theater. Here, footage inspired by contemporary modes of content production/consumption is married once again to architecture.
Leaving the KAGRO building, I was struck by how appropriate that association is for the neighborhood. North Avenue is dotted with old theaters that institutions and the city hope to leverage as "placemaking" tools. Soon, The Parkway and Centre theaters will be returned to film-related uses. If the impact the Charles Theater had on its block is any indication, the strip around the KAGRO (and likely, the building itself) will soon look very different. Projected moving images will profoundly impact the physical fabric of the city. With its first new project, The Contemporary is ahead of the game—carving out a meaningful, temporary space in one of the most unsung, idiosyncratic structures in the city.