REVIEW: Space Between Languages: Thoughts on “Space Fiction and the Archives” at Momenta Art and “Same Same” at Jackie Klempay Gallery

Written by Conor O’Brien

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At the center of Jacqueline Hoang Nguyen’s show “Space Fiction and the Archives” at Momenta Art is a UFO Landing Pad constructed in St. Paul, Alberta, in 1967, Canada’s centenary. Nguyen, a research based artist whose work investigates the “unnoticed political relevance of seemingly trivial historical anecdotes,” reconstructs this event within the gallery space using archival artifacts: newspaper articles, commemorative memorabilia, photography, and a film montage.

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The presence of the Landing Pad itself feels subdued, while the political and cultural climate that prompted its installment is foregrounded. Less about the Landing Pad than its implications: the intersection where the hokey good will of the project and political reality cross, blend into each other, reveal their discrepancy. During the video montage entitled “1967: A People Kind of Place,” there is a moment, taken supposedly from a television promotion of the Landing Pad, where an actor playing an immigration official talks to a figure, unseen beyond the camera frame, and explains that the quotas for people of different races do not include “green men.” What is meant as a light, self-deprecating jab about the inadequacy of immigration services in dealing with actual “aliens” holds a political reality about how these services control the inflow of people based on race.

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The artist seems interested in such cases where an awareness of social problems are discovered where they are not expected or intended, a fruitful task amidst the contrived idealism and patriotism of a country’s centennial anniversary. The Landing Pad waits passively, like an altar, the reception of otherworldly forms, while on another wall of the gallery are copies of Canada’s immigration regulations, the guidelines by which it is determined who may enter the country based, among other things, on occupation, age, usefulness.

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The Landing Pad can be understood as a symbol of openness, multiculturalism, universality, etc; or it can be seen as simply exaggerating the border between our world and an unfamiliar one, just as the immigration process defines more acutely feelings of foreignness in those who cross from one bordered space into another. More accurately, it represents not either but both of these things: it is the overlap of the ideal goal, understood as being unreachable, i.e. attracting visitors from other planets, and the immediate economic goal, i.e. attracting tourists from other places on earth. Both goals, lofty and material, are evoked here.

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Text flashes on the screen: “Science Fiction is Descriptive Not Predictive.” The value of sci-fi as a genre is not an imagining of possible realities but a reimagining of the existing reality. Extraterrestrials are almost always depicted as supreme beings, and supreme beings are almost always conceived as a means of observing ourselves from a higher perspective, and within a wider context. A parallactic reality: the angle where two perspectives either meet or split off: how we see ourselves and how we are seen (how we imagine we are seen): a resounding dissonance, constant, unheard.

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Sarah Sieradzki’s show Same Same at Jackie Klempay Gallery is based upon the linguistic concept “code switching,” the practice of switching between languages within a conversation. Those who enter another community must soon adopt a new way of communicating, a new way of navigating the structure. In some cases, two parties not fluent in each others’ language develop a neutral mixed language in order to communicate. Code-switching assumes both parties are fluent in all languages used in conversation; each language is kept separate and distinct, the speaker’s consciousness evenly divided between these different valves of expression.

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In our native languages, we build a world of familiarity: create patterns, narratives, causes, effects, orders, borders. From this space we reach outside and bring external events into our orbit: a geocentric existence. When we cross from this space into an unfamiliar one, where there are other patterns, other orbits, other gravitational centers, the effect seems at first to be distortive: going from a place of seeing, an active position, to a place of being seen, a passive position.

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Sieradzki’s work simulates this split-perspective: she photographs the simple, geometric familiarity of tablecloths and using mirrors she produces wavelike distortions in the patterns. Her works are products of combining two mediums: the camera which sees and captures the outside world, and the mirror which receives and reflects it. Confronted with the mirror, where one is both seer and seen, the once sure lines falter; borders fade and bend, reveal their fragile malleability; patterns taper into a blank sea. Sieradzki’s work captures the oscillations of a mind divided between an inner and outer perspective: the former confident and personal, ordered and comprehensible; the latter unfamiliar and impersonal, where pattern no longer contextualizes and conceals negative space, but in its arbitrariness accentuates the indefinite depths.

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Language is a medium, like a camera or a mirror, for processing external phenomena. To familiarize oneself with only one language, or medium, also means to be confined within the parameters of that language, and paradoxically, to not actually be familiar with that language at all, because one lacks a sense of its limits. In acquiring a new language (referring not only to written/oral language, but to any code, behavior, shibboleth) one gains a certain vantage point above one’s native language and the acquired one: developing an awareness of the contours of each language, the range of experience they are able to map; as well as the negative spaces between each language, where is glimpsed the limitless inadequacy of these or any language to encompass entirely one’s experience, the area where all divisions, including language, between spaces and people are arbitrary.

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