At the Western Front until August 20
Curious that the simple word Yesterday, printed in a Peter Max-style font on a multicoloured ground, is as likely to connote a Beatles song as it is to denote the 24-hour period that occurred two days before tomorrow. The invitation to Yesterday, the exhibition, evokes not only the Fab Four and the Swinging '60s, but also suggests the many ways in which pop-culture moments can resonate for years and even decades after their passing. Today is interleaved with a whole lot of yesterdays.
The show is guest-curated by Ron Tran for Centre A and the Powell Street Festival Society and takes place at the Western Front. (Centre A has been temporarily without an exhibition space; in September, it plans to relocate to Hastings and Carrall streets.) Tran-who works in video, photography, and congenially absurd public interventions when he's not pursuing a parallel career in independent curation-has brought together five emerging artists of Asian descent. Meesoo Lee, Jane Lee, Josh Olson, and Marlene Yuen are based in Vancouver, and Aya Takada in Tokyo, Japan.
In a recent interview with the Straight, Tran said that he originally intended the exhibition to survey strategies of sampling, reconstructing, or appropriating aspects of contemporary popular culture. What eventually took shape, however, has more to do with past than present pop-culture forms and narratives. The art in Yesterday revisits, reinvents, or relocates these elements outside their time and place-or engages with other agencies and events that do the same. To quote brochure essayist Vanessa Kwan, "These works make a mess out of history." (In her smart and illuminating essay, Kwan also discusses the differences between nostalgia for the past and nostalgia for the present.)
Most obviously hooked to such ideas are Marlene Yuen's black-and-white photographs taken at the present-day Penticton Elvis Festival, and Meesoo Lee's video installation based on the bestselling 1968 Beatles song "Hey Jude". Yuen's unglamorous images (including Elvis impersonators and their audience in the Okanagan Valley) document the incongruities that have attached themselves to the legend of the King, the distance that legend has travelled from its source, and the rock-bottom banality of contemporary attempts to claim and exploit it.
Meesoo Lee's work (slowly dissolving text on the screen of a vintage TV set mounted on a vintage TV stand, against a "Hey Jude" soundtrack) expresses a sweet and personal experience of a similarly distant pop phenomenon. The piece also explores the fleeting versus enduring and direct versus attenuated nature of our relationship with the markers of popular culture.
Another curious displacement is evident in Jane Lee's Desert Scene 1, 2, 3, & 4, a series of snapshot-style colour photos of a reenactment of the Crucifixion, staged for paying visitors in the badlands near Drumheller, Alberta. Here, through deadpan, blurred, and discoloured imagery, the artist shows us how popular culture packages and sells another kind of history and another kind of king-in the searing heat of a Canadian desert.
Josh Olson's video installation No One's Ark is an investigation of Karei, an obscure Japanese feature film made in the 1970s and based on historical figures and events from the early 19th century. Karei follows the story of three Japanese castaways who were shipwrecked off the coast of Japan in the 1830s, carried by currents to the Northwest Coast of North America, captured and enslaved by a group of Makah, then rescued, relocated, missionized, and pressed into collaborating on the first Japanese-language version of the Bible. Painstakingly researched, translated, and edited (to a length of 28 minutes), Olson's work is an attempt, he says in an artist's statement, to "reconcile" colliding and intersecting national and cultural identities.
As a spinoff from No One's Ark, Olson has also produced an artist's book, whose pages have been folded in such a way that the text and imagery are inaccessible, and whose dust jacket was conceived and printed by Aya Takada (formerly a student at Emily Carr Institute). Takada's mixed-media, multicomponent installation, Modern Leisure Co., Ltd., seems most closely related to Ron Tran's original "sampling and reconstructing" exhibition thesis. Takada uses her fictional corporate entity, Modern Leisure Co., Ltd., to address contemporary Japanese consumerism and its attendant marketing, branding, and advertising strategies. (Her project, with its recurring ML logo, is reminiscent of N.E. THING CO., Iain and Ingrid Baxter's comprehensive corporate undertaking of the 1960s and '70s.)
In Takada's installation, the ML branding occurs on book jackets (many of which make reference to sentimental moments in film), pocket packs of facial tissue (which imitate a Japanese marketing strategy while also isolating fragments of pop-song lyrics), a fake Louis Vuitton fan, and neatly packaged miniature pillows screen-printed with the image of an ear (an allusion to Vincent van Gogh). Inserting herself into the installation, in the form of a photographic self-portrait, Takada signals her immersion in the very culture she satirizes. She signals all of our immersions.