Through a globe darkly

The Walker Art Center’s “Brave New Worlds” exhibition pastes together a reassemblage of 21st century life on Earth, and its broken and hopeful inhabitants.

Sara Nicole Miller

From the strangest hair-curling rituals of an aging supermarket cashier, to television shots of the word “castration” spliced with Asian cooking show clips, art-bombs of political consciousness can take on multiple forms, even within the most kitschy or obtuse of contexts.

And although Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel “Brave New World” imagined a homogenous body politic that sedated itself with serums and twirled in the footsteps of fascism, the ambivalent world of today can, if nothing else, still pride itself on its many “micro-worlds,” spaces which can be differentiated by soil types and shrink-wrapped exports and still engage each other’s shared transgressions.

Brave New Worlds

WHEN: Through Feb. 17, 2008
WHERE: Walker Art Center, 1750 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis
TICKETS: Free every Thursday evening (5ñ9 pm), and the first Saturday of each month

Walker Art Center curators Doryun Chong and Yasmil Raymond marinated on these very ideas of globalization and its vantage points, its bones of contention and its modes of consciousness. In creating the new exhibition “Brave New Worlds,” they dared to re-imagine the view beyond Magellan’s (and your second grade teacher’s) colorful cardboard globe. One part catastrophic, one part redemptive, the exhibition gathers the works of 24 artists from 17 countries inside the Walker’s white gallery space. And the end result resembles the inside of a wonderful, pixilated shop-vac of global culture and critique.

The pieces vary from the fuzzy and malleable to the vapory and dew-stained – and nothing less can be expected from an exhibition with no real concrete aesthetic conventions. It’s consciousness, after all; a human metaphysical experience centered in the material world of ihadists and jigsaw puzzles.

Artist Mircea Cantor, a multimedia artist and native of Romania, went out and bought what he deemed “a very expensive cowboy hat,” turned it upside down, and filled it with motor oil. It sits in the exhibit atop a rustic wooden platform.

“It’s something very precious, the cowboy hat. You would never see it filled with oil,” Cantor explained. “It’s like shaking certain attitudes about power and economy.”

However, “Talking Mirror” (as the piece is titled) wrangles with deeper issues when considering the tangible gushiness of oil itself. Shiny and capable of reflecting objects opposite it, the motor oil invites the temptation of narcissism through the possibility of a mirror image, but alas, the museum barriers don’t allow you to get that close. As far as “Talking Mirror” is concerned, even the experience of narcissism has its privileged restrictions.

In the same breath, “Brave New Worlds” is largely topical and contextual, with many of the pieces taking the form and style of subversive, disillusioned rants typical of investigative journalists or documentarians. Sociopolitical injustice and development crises serve as reoccurring themes. Most of the art, rather glaringly, demands a response. Bold colors, large figurines and bizarre juxtapositions serve as the artificial, candied innards of a nameless global city – sensory overload is inescapable.

There’s no sense of linear space in “Brave New Worlds,” so visitors can zig-zag at random or just follow the perimeter. Different levels of engagement and tactics make up the multi level, winding exhibit – pieces swallow up dark rooms, wind around corners, or sit sheepishly at the top of the gallery space’s staircases. One exhibition consists of a dark room with three huge black bean bags plopped in the middle. Three screens on the wall play out everyday consumer transactions in a Polish grocery store, a domestic bathroom, a Vodka distillery.

Yto Barrada, a Morrocan artist, documents the cultural topographies of her hometown in the photographic series “The Sleepers.” Six huge photographs hang on the wall, each depicting a man asleep in the grass, somewhere in the coastal city of Tangier.

At first glance, the figures look dead and crumply, but learning of their slumbering states deepens the intrigue. Their identities become crystallized as faceless squatters at Europe’s back doorstep within the swelling global diaspora. They enter, like phantoms into the conversation your mind was previously conducting with the last piece.

In any case, Barrada’s sleeping men are convincing sit-in icons for the conditions of what she calls “the territory of the in-between.”

Then there’s Cao Fei, a Chinese artist who documents on video the daydreams of factory workers in Southern China. Her installation, “Whose Utopia,” is largely recognizable by the kitschy Chinese bunk beds blaring somber piano music, large stacked cardboard boxes, and a huge screen showcasing video portraits of workers in their occupational settings. The setting of the factory becomes an ad-hoc performance space, showcasing not only the fetishized ritual of production but also the narratives of the workers.

Even the most nonchalant of jaunts through both the cow paths and superhighways of “Brave New Worlds” make one thing persuasively, almost violently, clear: The added ‘s’ onto the title of an old fascist dystopian novel sure scrambles up our own spoon-fed notions of the symbolic order. Here, romantic, balmy mumblings of place and people can coexist with an architectural phallus or a can of skinned tomatoes, and no one really cares if you know what to make of it. And for being but a small primate on a rotating rock flying through the solar system, a blissful state of discomfort isn’t all that bad.