Product, Production, Theory, Aesthetics

The author with Margot Quan Knight's sculpture at Out Of Sight

Thursday, August 4: My FB feed is replete with talk about the Seattle Art Fair’s second-annual iteration—event announcements, mobile snaps, opinions. Everyone’s excited about Out of Sight at King Street Station, a survey taking national audiences straight into the Northwest’s heart. Some eschew the commercial orgy of the main fair while others counter that it’s a vital part of the creative ecosystem, that each platform depends on the other. I try to avoid black-and-white comparisons—between last year and this year, objects and experiences, money and meaning. My highlights slant toward alternative programming and traditionally unsalable work such as media, but I’m thrilled to uncover treasure where I least expect it.

3:30 p.m., Out of Sight: I lie down and a headset is placed around my eyes. I see the chaise, but my body’s not there. Seconds later the creature appears, blue and hairless. “May I touch you in a non-threatening way?” Fingers tap me and in the vision, ponies trot up my shoulder. Cats make biscuits at my temples and there’s purring in my ear. Feathers brush the physical body I’m half-inhabiting as tropical birds glide around the torso of my mirror image. It’s VR Spa by Portland Immersive Media Group, serving up a menu of therapeutic animal massages. 

This year, in addition to installations and performances, Out of Sight has a comprehensive media program, HOME/PAGE, curated by Julia Fryett of Aktionsart. Across genres, Out of Sight’s second run takes strides in presenting a snapshot of our times, as seen through a diverse group of artists with the common denominator of region. Those represented extend beyond Seattle this year, from Portland, Tacoma and Vancouver, BC. Much of the work is poignantly political. It responds to police brutality, asserts that Black and POC lives matter, celebrates queerness in the face of senseless massacre, questions and resists colonized culture. 

Karaoking the Museum, a video program screened in a darkened room doubling as karaoke booth by Portland’s Weird Allan Kaprow ensemble, offers a fiercely critical lesson in art history. It alters popular song lyrics to tell the backstories of works from the Portland Art Museum collection. In one segment, Continents by Sharita Towne, “Don’t go taking continents/Please don’t subject others to your ways and your virtues” scrolls by in text, replacing original lyrics from “Waterfalls” by TLC. The text highlights a 19th-century landscape painting of Mt. Hood. Its investigation is material as much as symbolic: traditional American landscape painting as trophy, and the role of art in shaping a newly stolen, natural landscape in the likeness of the American cultural one.

Out of Sight offers quiet, contemplative moments of healing and radical compassion, like Leena Joshi’s go in (plant life), a lyrical video in which the artist gently wipes dust from the leaves of a houseplant. Fibrous installations weave through King Street Station’s rafters, accentuating the space’s presence. Out of Sight will be on view on weekends throughout August and you should go.

8:30 p.m. I head toward CenturyLink for the main fair opening; a line snakes down the block. Inside, I wander past images of darling cats, anime rag dolls, a pair of oversized abstract paintings. I overhear, “It’d be one thing if it were stunningly beautiful, but it’s been done to death and it’s willfully ugly.” Fardaous Funjab series, a video by Moroccan millennial artist Meriem Bennani, is a mock reality-TV show starring a hijab designer and her absurdist headpieces. Against a backdrop greenscreened with purple Hamsa hands, we’re taken on a tour of the designer’s practice. A campy motion-graphic trick expands a headpiece upward like a beehive on steroids. The punchline arrives through a tongue-in-cheek interview: “So then I thought to make the hijab beautiful, I had to make it fun! The funjab!” Which was also a fine strategy for bringing contextually complex work to the art fair public.

This year’s alternative programming is largely off-site, in contrast to last year’s theater-sized showcase of media work from the Pacific Rim. Along with performances, there are two related programs, A Witness and a Weapon/Middle Grays, Color Bars, and the comma in between curated by Public Fiction and presented between the Henry Art Gallery and Century Link, and Juxtapoz x Superflat curated by Takashi Murakami at Vulcan’s Pivot Art + Culture in South Lake Union. The former is an archive that pairs early and contemporary video works referencing public modes of distribution (public access TV, talk shows, the internet). The latter is a pop-up of 23 internationally-based artists. When it emerged in the ’70s, public access television was a radically democratic platform that disrupted broadcast-media’s power. It was, in other words, a blueprint for the Internet. That’s the crux of A Witness and a Weapon, Public Fiction’s treasure for media theory nerds, far from the aesthetic engagment at CenturyLink. 

Friday, 7:30 p.m., Juxtapoz x Superflat opening: I expect the ego in this show to be off the charts. And it is, but I’m seduced. It’s all sex and death, embedded within the context of Juxtapoz Magazine’s street/skate/graphics aesthetic. Takashi Murakami and Kazumi Nakamura’s monolithic installation is plaster with fragments of anime porn. Monstrous, collaged animal heads loom atop grossly oversized figures by Elizabeth Higgins O’Connor. Ben Venom’s handmade quilt combines flashy graphics—skulls, fists, lions, pin-up girls—with phrases such as “Done Dirt.” In a three-channel video by Chiho Aoshima, woodland fairies gyrate upon mausoleums in a graveyard. 

Stealing this sexy show is Erin M. Riley’s 09 12 12, 5:04 AM. “Lesbea – Young Brit girl has fresh slit” reads the video tagline. It’s rated 3.5 stars, has 45,225 views, and is hosted on a site called “massagerooms.” There’s a play button centered on the pornographic image, woven into the wool and cotton tapestry. Riley’s piece might be the most contemplative in a show otherwise coming at the viewer rapid-fire. Whose gaze, and for whose consumption, are likenesses of feminine desire are for? Superflat’s electricity could have used a few more complicated moments like this.

Over at SOIL Gallery, a group of artists are working around the clock to produce something quite different. For Does Art Have to Be Experienced Live?, curated by Morgan Cahn, Seattle painter Claire Brandt paints portraits of live models, her canvas becoming a palimpsest covered in near-indistinguishable figures. Iole Alessandrini chips away at paint to unearth fragments of a work she’d presented on SOIL’s walls years ago. Mimi Allin embarks on a dinghy to sail from Olympia to Vancouver Island searching for Bas Jan Ader, the artist who disappeared in his boat in 1975 while searching for the miraculous. This marathon spectacle of production counterpoints the fair’s marathon spectacle of product. And so ends an epic weekend, full circle.

Ellie Dicola is a visual artist and writer. When it comes to taste in art, she’s “attracted to trend-damning weirdness.” To that effect, her recent projects operate outside the standard boxes of art-making, like her guerilla-style feminist performance project on and her quasi-diaristic animated drawings for NewHive. During the weekend of Seattle Art Fair and its attendant satellite exhibitions, Dicola went on record to chronicle events through her lens. —Amanda Manitach