Big bang

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REVIEW Near the end of “Song of Myself,” Walt Whitman’s woozy celebration of the universe contained within, he asks, “Do I contradict myself?” then responds to his own query, “Very well, then, I contradict myself.” This is followed by the oft-cited parenthetical thought, “I am large — I contain multitudes,” a sentiment that has been variously expressed in art since Whitman did so at the turn of the 20th century. “Cosmic Wonder,” a group exhibition featuring more than 20 emerging and established artists and an artists collective, offers a new take on Whitman’s lines as well as on one of the other overarching themes of the poem: the complexity of the American identity.
The heart of “Cosmic Wonder” revolves around the soul — more specifically, around a 21st-century reading of spirituality and our current relationship with the natural world. Threaded throughout are propositions toward articuutf8g the self within the context of an increasingly chaotic society that’s split between the built environment (manufactured slabs of concrete and acres of glass, metal, and plastic) and the myriad holes (some might call them black) within cyberspace. In the exhibition introduction, guest curator Betty Nguyen writes that among other things, “Cosmic Wonder” is about the “relationship of the individual to the multitude.” The contemporary “I” contains multitudinous parts; the song of the self is a dissonant dirge in multiple echo chambers; the largess of self is refracted across numerous surfaces. How to find oneself in this fractured landscape?
The black-and-white DVD projection Untitled (Silver) by Takeshi Murata (whose Monster Movie was part of “The Zine Unbound” at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts last year) is more of a kinetic painting than a video — the aesthetic is that of a painterly pixilation made of swooping gestures, as if an invisible brush is drawing the action. A woman moves through an indiscernible landscape, her figure dissolving between the abstract and wholly recognizable. Set to a squishy electronic soundtrack composed by Robert Beatty and Ellen Mollé, it suggests the ways identity morphs as we move through real and virtual time, shape-shifting in order to adapt to whichever environment we’re in. A stream of pixels trails the woman’s figure, as if she’s leaving programming code and bits of herself behind as she wends her way through a so-called meatland (as cybergeeks refer to life off-line) and cyberspace.
Shrines abound in various forms: Yukinori Maeda’s Eclipse/Eclipse Weeping Rock floor installation; Paper Rad’s wall-mounted installation consisting of hundreds of paintings and drawings and four DVDs; Mark Borthwick’s photographs, drawings, and performance environment Is My Nature My Only Way; and a giant mandalalike site-specific wall painting by Hisham Bharoocha. Spend a little time in the main gallery and it becomes difficult to determine what could be considered a shrine and what’s straight-up installation, especially in the context of the remainder of the show. Although taking cues from religious configurations, these shrines embody a more current vision of how to access the divine. What is offered can be seen as a sort of shrine reclamation project that eschews any particular religious doctrine in favor of celebrating those things that strike a more universal chord (inasmuch as anything can be considered universal in this age of political and religious partisanship). At the end of one of the videos serving as the centerpiece of the work by Paper Rad (a collective hailing from Pittsburgh, Penn., and Northampton, Mass.), the voice-over narration asks for a “nonexclusive real prayer” to put to rest a robot battle involving the U2 iPod, Adam Sandler, and … I forget what else. The point is it would be nice to think a “nonexclusive real prayer” could be said to help resolve some of the conflicts currently raging around the world.
Nature’s beauty is championed through chosen material (Jose Alvarez’s sculptural paintings made of mineral crystals and seashells), content (Doug Aitken’s geometrically reconfigured landscape horizon lines), and intent (Mike Paré’s illustrations of blissed-out festivalgoers and ritual-inventing skateboarders). Arik Moonhawk Roper’s animation Lazarian Forest is a darker and perhaps more accurate depiction of our current relationship with nature. Set to a squawking, increasingly agitated soundtrack, a strange flower blooms in stop-motion stages. Leaves unfurl skyward, a bulb sprouts from its stem, and the music reaches a crescendo as the bulb slowly cracks open to reveal a green human skull — the simultaneous celebration and destruction of nature encapsulated. Very well, then, we contradict ourselves. SFBG
COSMIC WONDER
Through Nov. 5
Tues.–Wed. and Fri.–Sun., noon–5 p.m.; Thurs., noon–8 p.m.
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
701 Mission, SF
$3–$6
(415) 978-ARTS
www.ybca.org