Friday, January 22, 2010

Decoding the Cheat Codes: “Lessons in Love” at antena

Decoding the Cheat Codes: “Lessons in Love” at antena
Written by: Tobi Haslett 
The turquoise title screen at the beginning of “Cheat Codes: lessons in love” puts love in terms of video games: juxtaposing cheat codes with relationships and comparing players to the viewers of the exhibit. The new video art installation at antena gallery uses this opening statement more as a caution than a credo. This short, playful definition sets the tone for a show whose connection to video games and digital culture is far from obvious, but whose overall meaning is derived from references and influences that are as contemporary and relevant as electronic media themselves.

Curated by Amelia Winger-Bearskin, the show features work by twelve video artists and animators whose styles differ significantly, often to a powerful effect. Bubbling beneath the surface of Eunjung Hwang’s animations is an apt, if hackneyed, commentary on our society’s technology-induced atavism. In Hwang’s piece, two-dimensional figures hump and harm one another with disturbing rapidity, all the while maintaining vapid, expressionless faces that reflect as much on Hwang’s choice of medium as they do on the video’s overall motif of passionless stimulation.

Another standout piece is Amber Swanson’s video, in which a blow-up sex doll is battered and abused in three different settings: a wedding, a park, and a trade show for the adult entertainment industry. In the first circumstance, trendy young Chicagoans point at and joke drunkenly about the eerily lifelike object, all the while remaining acutely aware of the odd nature of its presence. Later, in what is probably the most moving moment in the entire show, two women wearing hot pants and shirts emblazoned with the Girls Gone Wild logo pose suggestively for an off-screen camera. Each time they freeze for a photo, their likeness to the doll is overwhelming. It seems that to Swanson, both the doll and the girls are hollow, disturbing byproducts of the objectifying tendencies of the culture that produced them.

In some ways, “Cheat Codes” benefits from its disjointed arrangement. Although Grant Worth’s psychedelic video collage bears little resemblance to Jason Martin’s green-screened performance art, the pieces hang well together precisely because they lack obvious similarities to each other and to the work’s ostensible theme. The superficial incongruity between the pieces is a reminder to the viewer that the show is devoted to what is unseen or unobvious.

But not all of the works in “Cheat Codes” present these contradictions gracefully. Jennie Brinkager’s piece features a neon-clad belly dancer being raped by and eventually wrestling with men dressed as Vikings in what appears to be a strip mall parking lot. Text detailing the artist’s views on immigration runs along the bottom of the screen, providing an awkward accompaniment to what is already a somewhat questionable subject. Jay Schleidt’s video has a more comfortable setting. His grainy footage of two amateur musicians plucking the tune of “Sweet Home Alabama” is one of the less gripping pieces in the show, but it also has one of its more poignant moments: one of the musicians starts howling incomprehensible lyrics into a microphone and the camera cuts to a dim and cluttered room, with the young performer still wailing off-screen. The haunting image seems to represent the collapse of the hopes of the musicians at the hands of frustration and domesticity.

Cheat Codes is less about game consoles and onscreen avatars than it is about the treacherous nature of identity. The videos that make up the show all provide insight into a culture whose constituents must maintain several personas at once, be they sexual, political, or virtual. While some of the pieces seem to falter in illustrating this idea, there are quite a few jewels embedded in this eclectic collection.
antena, 1765 S. Laflin St. Through February 6. Hours by appointment. (773)257-3534.

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