What Makes a Man Start Fires?: A new exhibit at the antena gallery mediates the relationship between the viewer and the world
By Emma Ellis
You haven’t felt the meaning of stimulus overload until you’ve felt it in the hands of artist Noelle Mason. Immediately upon walking into the one-room antena gallery, a barrage of slaps, gasps, and giggles welcomes the newcomer. You progress through the physically interactive show, weaving across cables, tiptoeing over broken bits of a chandelier that lies crashed in the center of the gallery’s floor, and bending over to view certain pieces properly. While standing near the two walls where about half the pieces are located, you can’t even step backwards without bumping into “Li’l Sparky”—an electric chair.
Using an intrusive shock therapy-type method, Noelle Mason created the show “What makes a man start fires” with the intention of getting people “to act, to really metaphorically start this fire—to cause change towards something that is better for us as a society.” Much of her work in the show serves to demonstrate how inured the audience is to what she calls “mediating objects,” and force viewers’ participation in ideas from which their culture tends to distance itself.
In “Bob and Weave,” for example, the audience witnesses a video of a fistfight between Mason and a large man projected onto a wall. As the tussle progresses, Mason’s bloodied face bumps in and out of the camera’s frame, the back of her opponent’s head impeding our view most of the time. The viewer is confronted with an image physically too large and too loud to avoid.
Mason’s other visual work is geared to achieve a similarly jarring response. She explains that, normally, “the television is kind of a wall, but also a window in some ways.” The television screen, like a car’s windshield or a white picket fence, is a “mediating object” in that it serves to separate the viewer from what it portrays. The show, however, compels the viewer to transgress these divisions and in so doing makes the audience more aware of the gap created by such mediating objects.
After taking part in “Mise en Scene,” another work that creates understanding by involving the viewer, one cannot help but wonder how many television screens it takes to make us savages. During “Mise en Scene,” the screens serve as a visual gateway to the interior of a white eight by eight foot cube, within which a barely clothed performer stands on a box with wire electrodes attached to her legs and arms. The viewer watches and listens to a television video of other viewers pressing a red button and observing, on another television set, the woman convulsing in pain.
The video-recorded audience members sought to connect with the woman inside the box, but as one of the audience members shrewdly observed, “the only way to communicate with her is to shock her.” In a telling shot a man with black-rimmed glasses repeatedly jabbed the button while looking at the screen, and turned to an off-camera friend while laughing and pointing at the television.
Mason also uses mediating objects to explore the transformation of traditionally cherished American individualism, which she describes “as a very noble kind of effort that got mangled and turned into [a] fearful position where you lock yourself inside of your tract home.”
In the piece “Open House,” the viewer is treated to posters of the detailed architectural plans of “Cul de Sac,” which the program says was made “using prefabricated building materials” such as plastic siding, and then watches a video performance of Mason and several others who built themselves inside this suburban equivalent of Thoreau’s house on Walden pond. It might take more than an axe and some whiskey to change the new individualism they are fighting, but at that moment that’s all it takes to destroy the pristine house from the inside out.
antena, 1765 S Laflin St. Through May 24. Saturday, 12-5 pm, or by appointment. http://www.antenapilsen.com/current.html