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FotoFatigue

With 140 venues, FotoFest makes you suffer for your art

FotoFest is the art world's version of the Bataan Death March. Large-scale art events always offer an overwhelming amount of work to see and engender a commensurate level of exhaustion and image oversaturation. But at least at, say, the Venice Biennale, or Germany's Documenta, the exhibition is usually concentrated in an area manageable for walking. FotoFest, held in the city built around the car, offers special challenges. With 140 scattered venues and a terrain of bulldozed trenches and buckled asphalt, Houston's epic biennial photo-based art event requires the skill of an orienteer, the dedication of a religious pilgrim and the gutsiness of a Paris-Dakar Rally driver. Hurry up, light rail, and God help the poor visiting bastards who didn't rent a car.

Themed "The Classical Eye and Beyond," FotoFest 2002 features both traditional photography and new media. The cornerstone of the classicism exhibit is a museum-quality show of Russian pictorialism, vintage photographs from the 1880s to the 1930s, at Williams Tower. Well, it's not all at Williams Tower. The 1920s nudes have been relegated to the FotoFest offices. Apparently Williams considered the rather tame images to be inappropriate for display. One such "shocking" photograph, now on view at FotoFest's Vine Street headquarters, is Aleksander Grinberg's 1926 Dark Tonality Nude. Only the woman's torso is visible; the head and limbs fade into the black background, mimicking a fragment of classical statuary. It's an elegant image, though ripe for contemporary feminist critique.

You can walk across the Main Street bridge from FotoFest HQ to the old Sunset Coffee Building on Allen's Landing -- unless you're playing beat the clock for a 6 p.m. close and it's your ninth stop of the day. Taking the liberty of pro-rating, I slipped a dollar into the slot at a "$6 All Day" parking lot and emerged to the pungent aroma of raw sewage. Either those ubiquitous construction workers hit a line or that smell is coming from the bayou, where, incredibly, a yacht from Delaware is moored. Yeah, and I'm going canoeing at the waste treatment plant.

It's a bird, it's a plane, it's an artist! Paul Smith plays action hero at the Blumenthal Sheet Metal warehouse.
Paul Smith
It's a bird, it's a plane, it's an artist! Paul Smith plays action hero at the Blumenthal Sheet Metal warehouse.

Details

Through April 1. For more information, call the exhibition headquarters, 1113 Vine Street, 713-223-5522, or visit www.fotofest.org.
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Memories of Spaces and History, Georges Rousse's installation at Sunset, is worth even full-price parking and olfactory assault. In photo documentation (on view at Barbara Davis Gallery), Rousse's installations simply seem to be images and colored shapes digitally overlaid on photographs of architectural spaces. But the photos record Rousse's actual manipulation of the space, what you too would see if you stood at the camera's perfect point of view. Rousse's specific visual and structural alterations on the first floor (black line drawings on painted white rectangles) turn the empty, grotty, three-dimensional warehouse corners into two-dimensional images of downtown's vanished architectural facades. An amazing visual click occurs when you stand at the correct perspective and three dimensions flatten into two.

Leaving the Rousse installation, do not rush out of the parking lot and drive seven blocks down Commerce Street until you realize the Topek Building was a block and a half from where you were already parked. (The fuse for my blinkers blew again, so my U-turn prompted more than the usual rush-hour ire.) At the Topek (no. 10 for those bright enough to actually look at the handy FotoFest map), Andreas Müller-Pohle presents ENTROPIA, a hypnotic video of rolling, notched metal cylinders shredding the artist's photographs. Nothing is safe, and the action feels increasingly violent. As people stand by in rapt fascination, individual creation is systematically destroyed by the sleekly impersonal machines.

Also at the Topek Building, Fraser Stable's video Double Garage Scene presents a film clip side-by-side with its mirrored image. The camera pans around a garage in a circle, so that the original and flipped images run together at the center of the screen, disappearing into themselves. The scene shows a man sitting in his car singing a Tosca aria with powerful focus. A tough young man in a leather jacket repeatedly urges him, "Come on, let's go," but to no avail. The sound is slightly out of sync, giving the film a muffled, disoriented feeling, like a glimpse back in time. The images endlessly circle into each other, and the man's strong, clear tenor fills the room.

Outside the Topek, I discover my tire is flat -- too much urban off-roading. A housing-challenged guy hanging out in the Spaghetti Warehouse parking lot helps me change it with an alacrity worthy of an Indy 500 pit crew member. I'd want him with me on the road to Dakar. Mobility restored, I head to the Blumenthal Sheet Metal warehouse north of FotoFest HQ, where some of the strongest new media work is housed.

Martha Burgess presents her work in progress, Gumshoe, Opus 23, "moonlighting." A flat screen displays blurred images of a roadway at night, overlaid with arcs and streaks of light that change in sync with a Beethoven score. The effect is moody and sparsely elegant. In a low voice, Burgess tells a grief-stricken story about attending the wake of two murdered boys. Then the narrative changes into a stream-of-conscious account of witnessing September 11 from her balcony. It is a hauntingly effective piece that hovers nicely in the gray zone where film, literature, and visual and performance art come together.

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