Michael Dax Iacovone on PLAY: Tinker, Tech, & Toy, A Group Show at The Arlington Art Center
Walking across a wide lawn towards the Arlington Arts Center, you are immediately confronted with a giant five foot tall yard dart sticking out of the grass. If you missed the press release for PLAY and didn’t know the premise of the show, you wouldn’t even get to the front door without some clues signifying the circus-like environment you were about to see.
If you don’t remember yard darts, it’s because you’re probably under 35. They were banned in the early 80s because of the roughly 6100 ‘reported’ trips to the emergency room (thanks, Ronald Reagan). Cory Oberndorfer’s comically oversized “Yard Dart” isn’t the only signifier in front of the gallery. There’s also a monumental frisbee stuck on the roof and a giant kite stuck in the tree.
Oberndofer explains, “I am of the generation that spent the summers playing outside every day, from early morning until our mothers called us in for dinner. I also enjoy the humor in simple childhood struggles. If our only distraction was a frisbee or a kite, roofs and trees were our worst enemy; cruelly claiming our prized possessions.”
Oberndorfer’s exaggerated pop culture nostalgia based pieces have become ubiquitous in local art spaces and for good reason. Like these three, they’re playful and a little frustrating. They’re far removed from the 60s and 70s Claes Oldenberg sculptures they reference; they are firmly planted in the Contemporary realm, challenging the viewer to stir up their own context and youthful reminiscence. Hopefully that’s not a memory of a sibling being impaled by a yard dart.
Walking past the outdoor pieces and into the Chairman’s Gallery on the left, you’ll find a continuation of the game theme. Annette Isham and Zac Willis, who have been collaborating for three years, have converted a gallery into a trophy room dedicated to their absurdist competitions.
The room is filled with video, photos, and artifacts of the two artists battling in a Field Goal Challenge, a Missouri Tomahawk Throw, and a Spear Throwing Challenge. The artifacts and the room are set up the way I’d imagine a wealthy sportsman would enshrine himself in an ostentatious home as an homage to his virility and prowess. Like a dentist mounting the head of a lion to sip scotch under, Isham and Willis memorialize an inflatable turkey who died in a serious spear chucking competition.
While the entire room works as a monument to made-up childhood competitions, it would be a mistake to assume that the artists weren’t taking these games seriously. For a richer experience, spend some time and listen to the videos. Hear the earnest disappointment as well as the thinly veiled gloating in the post-competition confessionals. While they are employing humor and elaborate visuals to disarm and draw the viewer into their competitive world, these two are genuinely playing to win. And they’re playing with the concept of reality show celebrity and notions of success and fame. Through sincere efforts towards meaningless events, they convince viewers to choose sides and care.
In the Charles E. Smith Gallery you’ll find Steven Jones’ “Dinner Bell” series. It is composed of the kind of low stakes and lower excitement mechanical rides you might find in front of a grocery store in a stripmall. Picture this: 25 cents to keep your kid quiet for a minute while the rocket ship or race car gyrates in a slow circle and your child ostensibly replaces the mundane reality of that strip mall with the thrill of space travel. Except it’s not a rocketship… it’s a lambchop or fried chicken, and people aren’t walking by, telling their children no. They’re waiting on line to ride that lambchop and post a pic on instagram, replacing the ubiquitous social media foodpic with something far more interesting.
Jones’ rides are subverting our notion of food by mixing it with nostalgia and asking us to reconsider its pathos. The artist explains, “When I make them it starts with my own complex relationship with food. Then I kind of see them as a celebration of food. Kind of like, ‘Let’s eat this lamb! No, let’s do more than eat it! Where it’s flesh? No, more! Eat it’s young? No, dammit – more! Let’s fucking ride it’s delicious parts! In front of a crowd!'”
Jason Corace and Sam Sheffield fill the Trueland Gallery with Mr.Yum’s Inc., an installation that marries video game with interactive sculpture. The digital and analogue are interchangeable — leading the viewer to question their preference for either and/or for both.
There are electric toggle switches, funnels and spirals leading marbles down various paths. It’s simple yet complicated. It looks like it’s made for kids, yet it was the adults in the room who seemed most captivated. It filled the center of the room, but after circling the setup, pushing every button and pulling every leaver, it left you wanting more. The artists seem to build and create just enough bring up the question of preference, digital or analog, and leave the viewer just short of an answer which seems to be the point.
In the Experimental Gallery, Scott Pennington’s Carnival Interior is just that. This windowless basement room is so vivid you might be tempted to put your sunglasses on. The room is painted in thick bands of neon pink, orange, yellow and green in meticulous order. There is a duck pond fountain in the middle where yellow wooden ducks float around evoking a carnival game. In opposition to many of the other exhibits, there isn’t actually anything to do in this room. It’s not a game, there aren’t buttons to push or video to watch. The room itself is set up to consume the viewer, like being swallowed by a carnival and living in the belly of the beast.
Pennington’s installation serves as an escape from any sort of normalcy. It succeeds where few others do, by allowing the viewer to be so engulfed by the set that suspension of belief is inevitable. Most installations expect the viewer to ignore the periphery of their surroundings, and take in the work by ignoring the context. Yet Pennington creates a context for the viewer to exist in completely. The viewer is willingly consumed and then free to enjoy that consumption, squinting their eyes at the overwhelming gaudiness. Their choice becomes whether to be rescued or doomed by reality. It’s fun enough to take a seat and and soak in the environment, yet there’s a tension saccharine enough to spit you out before you start to rot.
Curated by the savvy Karyn Miller, PLAY isn’t just fun. It isn’t just art. It isn’t just interactive. It’s all of those things in concert, and just when you get comfortably familiar with the mode of one room, the next room will turn you on your head. While most District of Columbia dwellers (myself included) shudder at the thought of going to Virginia on a Saturday night, Miller has succeeded in the Herculean task of dragging the public across the river, stealing their reasons to complain about it, and replacing them with thought provoking questions about the role of the artist in conjunction with the art as catalyst.
Play: Tinker, Tech, & Toy will be on view from Jul7 11 – Oct. 11, 2015. Check out the catalogue pdf here.
Author Michael Dax Iacovone is a DC based artist who works in photo, video, maps and installation.