Saturday, September 12, 2009

Returned from Seattle at midnight, the train an hour late from Portland, two hours late arriving in Vancouver. As with soccer, the relationship between the United States and train travel has never been an enduring one -- (American) football and the automobile having displaced them during the early part of the last century.

Seattle has changed a lot since my last visit there twelve years ago, when I read at Bumbershoot. Areas that once seemed emergent, like Belltown, have returned to the vacant somnambulistic Belltown of the early 1990s. As for the larger city, Seattle looks like a cross between Chicago and New Westminster – iconic architecture of the 60s and 70s combined with post-war worker housing plopped along its slopes

Managed to see quite a bit during my two-day stay. The Henry Art Gallery had Jasper Johns’s light bulb project (drawings and Metal-sculpts) in the basement next to a trippy projection by local artists Jeffry Mitchell and Tivon Rice. In Panda (2005), a camera records shaving-cream falling onto a lit transparent surface, after which the video is subjected to a mirroring process. The effect is dazzling, but over time I became bored with the symmetrical nature of these new and at times horrific forms – the ongoing (and expected) display having trumped the unexpected.

Upstairs, another pairing – a two-p show entitled Business As Usual/New Video From China. Three short videos by Cao Fei, two by Yang Fudong. Although interested in the migration of young people from rural to urban China, Cao’s videos, with their focus on factory workers, have a righteous documentarian feel, while Yang, whose shooting and editing strategies are decidedly more lyrical, is interested in the criminal demimonde. The videos owe more to MTV than, and are suffused with an old world French sentimentality that feels received, too reliant on the pop songs that accompany them.

The last piece, apart from some photographic portraits from the collection, was James Turell’s permanent installation Light Reign (2003), a circular room with a windowed ceiling and an equally circular banquette below. The sky that day was a deep rich blue, and the reflection of the sun cast a rather sexy blob on the wall above, one that reminded me of what I had seen earlier, in the basement (the video, not the light bulbs).

From there, the moribund Seattle Art Museum, with its succession of rooms, from early modern painting to Minimalism to conceptualism, a narrative many collecting museums have fallen into these past few years. In the SAM version, we have the artists but not the art, with Robert Morris’s The Box With the Sound of Its Own Making (1961) being the exception. The SAM’s “Next” artist exhibition does not bear mention.

Finally, the Seattle Public Library, with its brutalist glass overhang and criss-cross girder and grid system. In taking in this marvel I could not help but compare it to the new Vancouver Public Library (now almost fifteen years old!). Although I like the openness and availability of the Seattle library, the Vancouver library is actually a library within a building, a more gradual passage, the atrium appearing to be both inside and outside at once. Still, nothing compares to the Seattle library's fourth floor, an effect best arrived at by elevator.

Overall, a pleasant day. But that’s not why I was in Seattle. Tomorrow I will tell you why.

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