Arts Inspiration inverted

Vietnam War. What is it good for? Art and criticism, natch

Take something familiar, turn it on its head, and you’ll make a statement. It may be trite to say that all three of Artpace’s newest residency exhibitions are acute reversals, but it is also true that they evoke a potent response in the viewer.

Katrina Moorhead is an Irish artist living in Houston who uses planted flowers to recreate bathroom scrawl and billboards to match the sky. She has an uncanny sense of beauty mixed with strangeness, and brings her entire arsenal to bear in “an island as it might be.” She wanted the large room to feel even more expansive, so viewers must keep to a strip of floor outside the canvas of her installation. A slightly raised white platform acts as stage for a ballroom setting — except the glass chandeliers grow upside down, sprouting out of the floor like small trees. The room’s uncanny beauty turns you back into a wonder-filled kid.

Oregon artist Harrell Fletcher’s installation was inspired by the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam. (Photo by Kimberly Aubuchon, Artpace)

While in Venice, where Moorhead participated in last summer’s 51st Biennale, she noted that the water-loving city’s lack of natural park settings was counteracted by flourishing architectural details — seasonless flowers and vines frozen in concrete. For her San Antonio exhibition, Moorhead cast molds of decorative rosettes and bands of ceiling decoration, then scattered them along the floor. A dangling microphone amplifies air-conditioning sounds while hills of white powder pile up around the walls like snow. Starkly sublime, the room conjures up a lavish party after everyone has departed and you’re left tipsy.

The national artist resident, Harrell Fletcher, hails from Portland, Oregon, but his community-based art is so in demand, he is constantly globetrotting. His art just screams, “Can’t we all just get along” or “Come Together” or some other Civil Rights-era tagline. Whether he’s making giant billboard cutouts of town locals or sharing a collection of his own books inside a school library, he orchestrates personal interaction the way painters drip paint.

Houston-based Irish artist Katrina Moorhead’s installation, “an island as it might be,” bottom, was influenced by the architectural embellishments of Venice, Italy. (Photo by Kimberly Aubuchon, Artpace)

During a recent residency in Vietnam, Fletcher discovered the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh where the “American War,” as the war is known to the Vietnamese, was spelled out in reverse perspective. He photographed the museum’s displays with his digital camera, then recreated them at Artpace. Even with an extra, double-sided wall, he could only show half of the museum’s images. And they’re stomach-turning — birth defects, piles of broken bodies, and Agent Orange sprayers accompanied by matter-of-fact text that makes the tragedy more stinging. The Vietnamese curators cut us a break by including images of Americans protesting at home, thereby acknowledging the difference between governments and their people.

Everything in the show is an appropriation, re-photographed and re-presented. A case of collected objects refashioned as color photocopies runs the length of the hallway, including photographs of San Francisco protesters from local artist Henry Rayburn, and relevant books and videos from the San Antonio Public Library.

The glass chandeliers grow

upside down, sprouting out

of the floor like small trees.

At the introductory Artpace Potluck where we met the artists and heard about their work, Fletcher announced that he hoped his project would encourage discussion and activate protest about the Iraq war. As part of his direct engagement, Fletcher issed an open call for locals to invite someone they know to talk about their Vietnam experience for 10 minutes on a Saturday in November. There were only four speakers and a small audience, so afterward everyone sat in a circle and discussed the war and its relationship to the Iraq conflict. Some very touching testimonials from different perspectives are captured on film in the exhibition, despite San Antonio’s palpable indifference to the artist’s attempt to put a burr under its saddle.

Parisian-based artist Melik Ohanian accidentally restaged Waiting for Godot for most of his residency. Because of bureaucratic obstacles with his visa, the artist didn’t arrive until the final week. When he was here on a pre-visit, Ohanian was struck by the fact that six people were executed by the Texas criminal-justice system in just 10 days.

Paris resident Melik Ohanian commissioned an enigmatic memorial for Texas’ execution-efficient criminal-justice system.

It sparked project ideas that were, unfortunately, unrealizable this time around.

While the other residents were putting finishing touches on their work, Ohanian commissioned yet another example of a major reversal. In his second-floor gallery, all you see is a set of cement steps and a metal flagpole that extends through a hole in the ceiling like Jack’s magic beanstalk. You have to track down the rest of his piece on the roof, where a solid-white Texas flag flies at half-mast.

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If Ohanian had more time, he would have asked prison inmates to sew the flag, which would have added another dimension to the work. As it is now, the piece feels unfinished. But as a series of unresolved clues it can still give viewers room to try to finish the idea themselves.

By Catherine Walworth

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