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Playing Around

A quartet of current exhibits show art can be fun and challenging

When I walked into Yayoi Kusama's installation at the Rice University Art Gallery recently, I saw a bunch of students lying around on the floor, staring at the ceiling. I took this to be a good sign. The gallery has been transformed into a perceptual playhouse, one whose antiseptic feel is emphasized by the hospital-blue booties visitors must wear to enter. The ceiling, walls and floor are painted bright yellow and covered with large black polka dots of the sort that might grace Minnie Mouse's frock. Four misshapen latex balloons, looking rather like gigantic eggplants, loll about the room -- a couple almost span the length of the gallery. Dots spill out the door of the gallery and onto the lobby floor. They're everywhere. Even when you close your eyes, an optic afterburn remains. The piece is aptly named Dots Obsession.

The artist, Yayoi Kusama, doesn't use the word "obsession" lightly. Kusama, who has a clinical mental condition that, among other things, causes hallucinations in which patterns appear to multiply and spread over every surface in sight, lives in a mental institution in Japan. Because of this, she never visited the Rice gallery when creating her work. Instead, she designed the site-specific installation only after receiving a description of the gallery.

That fact, along with a little history on Kusama, puts her cheery-seeming work in quite a different light. Born in 1929, she made her way to the U.S. in the late '50s, determined to work as an artist. By the late '60s, she had become such a cult figure that, according to some sources, her fame in New York rivaled that of Andy Warhol. She staged many Happenings, or performances, during which she would often paint polka dots on naked people, horses and whatever else was at hand.

By the mid '70s, though, Kusama had retreated back to Tokyo, to the mental institution where she's lived ever since. Repetition and pattern have always been an important part of Kusama's oeuvre, as well as of her illness. Critics usually interpret her work as teetering between self-obliteration (drowning in dots) or self-aggrandizement (covering everything with dots). Still, there's more to Kusama's work than dots -- there's the furniture she covered with phalluses, the intricate, relentlessly clean drawings of snakes, pumpkins and hats, and a slew of colorful prints.

The installation at Rice serves, then, as just an introduction to the work of someone whose art at its best uses mental illness to its advantage, and makes no bones about doing so. To visit Dots Obsession is to experience life according to Kusama, a feat impressive in its focus, but also one that's relentlessly narrow -- obsession, as it were, for obsession's sake.

But if Kusama's installation beckons passersby into the gallery, the very mention of video art often has me heading for the door. Thankfully, "Being and Time," the current show of video projection at the Contemporary Arts Museum, is not one of those butt-numbing video shows that has you sitting on a hard bench and staring at a monitor. Instead, it's a thrifty assembly of works by six top video artists, a show dampened only by the fact that one of its eight pieces is installed so badly as to be rendered impotent.

That piece is Bruce Nauman's Clown Torture, in which a clown is projected on walls and shown on various stacked monitors. On one screen, he screams "No" repeatedly; on another, he chants a children's logic trap ("Pete and Repeat are sitting on a fence..."); and on still another, he sits on the toilet in a restroom stall. Unfortunately, the volume -- intended to be jacked up to assault level -- is so low that the viewer has to stand near the speakers, a bad vantage point from which to see the actual videos, to discern what's being said.

The artists in this show don't use video as a documentary tool -- instead, they test the form's limits and capacity for invention. The most salient dimension of video art vis-a-vis other media is time, and Bill Viola is one who experiments drastically with this element. By filming his beautiful The Greeting in super-slow motion, he reveals the infinitesimal dramas that occur in even the briefest human exchange. Filmed in supersaturated colors, The Greeting is a reenactment of a Biblical moment painted by Jacopo Pontormo in the 16th century: the pregnant Virgin Mary's visit to her long-barren cousin Elizabeth, who is miraculously pregnant as well. Viola's version, oriented vertically like the painting rather than horizontally as video usually is, takes its composition and costume cues from Pontormo, but Viola has contemporized the image and stripped it of any clear scriptural reference. In the video, one woman looks on as two other women -- one older, the other obviously pregnant -- embrace. As the witness realizes that she has been left out, not only from the hug but from some secret blessing the other women share, her reaction plays out clearly on her face. In this case, the blessing from which the woman is excluded is not necessarily miraculous -- it could be simply grace, popularity, shared memories or any of a number of qualities whose absence separates one person from a group.

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