Posted on 21 November 2009.
Taro Hattori, "V-2", 2009, corrugated cardboard installation, variable size
Ed and Nancy Reddin Kienholz, makers of savagely satirical sculptural tableaux that excoriated post-WWII American culture, declared that they wanted to make art “on a scale that competes with the world.” The explosion of esthetics and media in recent years has caused many contemporary artists to erase any distinction between art making and other forms of activity (following the ideas of Robert Rauschenberg), and to consider art as simply a microcosm of society, instead of an alternate or even adversarial reality. The unintended consequence of art’s assimilation by life is that all too often art loses its power and relevance. Two Bay Area artists, Taro Hattori and Jordan Essoe, directly confront this diminished capacity of contemporary art by choosing ambitious and even daunting historical and philosophical themes.
Taro Hattori, with sculpture and mixed-media light-boxes, comes to terms with war and memory. V-2 is a life-sized model of a WWII German “retaliation weapon.” Those rockets, designed by Wernher von Braun, are the prototypes of all military rockets, and von Braun was recruited after V-E Day by the United States to jump-start its postwar ballistic missile program.
Taro Hattori, "1951 Patrilineality", 2009, archival pigment print, acrylic paint, wood, fluorescent light, 20" x 20" x 3.25”
Hattori, who has also crafted models of the Hindenburg airship and a B-29 Superfortress (like the Enola Gay, which bombed Hiroshima), admires the beauty of weapons, despite their monstrousness, and he exorcizes his fascination by creating harmless, room-sized models built of latticed cardboard. In the gallery, whose dimensions only accommodate an abbreviated version of the structure, the nose cone, midsection and tail of the imaginary aircraft lie strewn about the floor, bathed in a harsh, lurid, yellow glare that signifies insanity to Hattori, who clad the gallery’s windows with yellow plastic film to achieve the effect.
Hattori also shows a series of collaged archival prints affixed to wall-mounted light boxes. Entitled 1951, the year his father took the prominently featured family snapshots, the prints include grids, engineering diagrams of weaponry and snippets of writing from Hattori, Milan Kundera, Von Braun and others. Kundera: “No, vertigo is something other than the fear of falling. It is the voice of the emptiness below us which tempts and lures us. It is the desire to fall, against which, terrified, we defend ourselves.” Von Braun on Hitler: “But also you could see his flaw – he was wholly without scruples, a godless man who thought himself the only god, the only authority he needed.”
Together, these elements — the family pictures, the quotes and diagrams — juxtapose family and world histories. With light from the light boxes streaming from behind the black-margined prints onto the surrounding walls, these boxes (Patrilineality, Sewing Machines, Craftsmen) serve as icons or altars to history, or to alternate histories.
Jordan Esssoe, "The Myth of Sisyphus", 2008, digital video still
Essoe’s multimedia Living Room
installation derives from the postwar period as well, namely French existentialist philosophy and art, invoking the Swiss sculptor Giacometti who made emaciated, attenuated figures that are now almost universally seen as icons of existentialism. Critic John Berger
postulated in 1966 that Giacometti had been isolated and alienated his whole life, essentially born into a sack, and thus incapable of intimacy. Essoe sees modern American life as just as isolating: the suburban home is no more than “a personalized, psychological space … a confining experiential shell,” but, curiously, a dynamic one, evolving with circumstances that dictate living in a perverse way.
Essoe’s own dining room often serves as his studio. Thus, the room where he spends most of his time alone is
his livingroom and the template for this project; it includes photos, drawings, video, sculpture and installation. Photographs of the room’s carpeted floor and textured plaster ceiling symbolically transform the gallery into a symbolic living room; while a border of glossy, black bondage tape encircling the room serves as a virtual horizon—and a psychic boundary. A video showing the artist absurdly vacuuming a hillside as seen through a chain-link fence pays homage to Camus’s Myth of Sisyphus
with its tragicomic/heroic protagonist, doomed to futility, but never giving up.
Jordan Essoe, "Floor", 2009, digital pigment print
“It is an exercise in curiosity and hunger, but equally an attempt at the sanitization and domestication of the world,” says Essoe. Two drawings of the artist straddling a coffee-table-sized trunk derive from a filmed performance on the theme of containment, and the white sculpture entitled Rock, covered in a plaster-like texture, duplicates the interior volume of that chest, serving as the artist’s assigned (and philosophically embraced) Sisyphean boulder.
Hattori’s and Essoe’s works are ambitious, intelligently conceived and flawlessly executed. Like many contemporary works, they are the residue or by-product of investigations, procedures of methodologies, rather than ingratiating or beautiful (or even generally accessible) objects. It is encouraging that, after generations of formalist dogma, artists are now tackling larger themes again, though, of course, in a thoroughly contemporary manner.