How the West Was Won is an art show by Regina Mamou currently on view at Adjunct Positions. Have you ever been to an art show at Adjunct Positions? The location alone is worth seeing—the house is not just any house but one of those classic craftsman things with a steep stairway going up the hill through a surprisingly lush (but water wise, of course) garden of mature succulents. And unlike other houses in the neighborhood, it doesn’t look like its been “restored”; it feels old, authentic—meaning, it isn’t playing a version of itself to sell an idea of east LA; rather, it stayed put in the hillside, hidden in plain sight, protected by the flora and maybe even some invisible fauna (there is a catio, aka, cat patio). What I’m saying is, I like this place. The vibe is less “art as party” and more “art as block party.” Some of this vibe is due to the location of the first gallery at Adjunct Positions—a street-level single-car garage built into the hillside and outfitted with french doors. The rest of the artwork is shown up in the house, which causes a stratification of audience across the property—little art people and artworks dotting the hillside. For some reason it makes me think of the SIMS.
Getting a grip on the variety of elevations at Adjunct Positions is only necessary in so far as it seems to have influenced How the West Was Won. Looking for Freedom is the title of the artwork in the garage, and on opening night, it contained a performance. I find it so tricky to write about these spaces in which performances happened, and then, for the duration of the exhibition, just the “traces” of the performance are left. Where did this idea come from? Not strictly for Regina, but for all of us? I am tempted to bow out of Looking for Freedom completely, because I almost can’t wrap my mind around reconciling its two forms: the opening performance, which featured two Reagan-masked men in black behind generic-looking stanchions, pulling pre-”glitched” screen prints of David Hasselhoff from an almost fetishistic-looking, handicraft, customized revolving four-station print cart, and piling them up on an IKEA table; and the gallery without the performance, which is the IKEA table with two floppy Reagan masks, a few beer cans on the floor, a print display rail affixed to the wall, and a tornado of Hasselhoff prints looking as if they were thrown about the room, in a fit of rage, or total indifference. The stanchions, which the night before had served as a pseudo fourth wall for the printing performance, were clumped toward the entrance, so that they stanchioned nothing at all.
In a reductive way, this is a very straightforward artwork to interpret, even with a minimal understanding of its references; the Reagan-masked screen printers stand in for a kind of political propaganda machine; and David Hasselhoff, of all people, is a cheesy celebrity whose heterosexual-but-pretty-boy values are being espoused. The “glitch” in the print signals that all is not right; and the stanchions, while playing to their divisional strength, also serve as a cue of both a corporatization, I guess, but really, a “genericism” (not a word, sorry).
I’ve said I am being reductive, and really, I don’t want to be. What if I take my artwork-goggles off and assume that nothing is standing in for anything? Not all artworks are symbolic. They are not all metaphorical. So, this is where the garageness of the gallery comes in—the kind of production that happens in the marginalized space of a garage, disconnected from the house, segregated from the family, away from “creature comforts” (I hate that term, sorry), but also away from the authoritarian eye of the parent. The garage, people, is the place where we find freedom, even if it is a sort of reductive, adolescent, mask-wearing one; and so Looking for Freedom becomes less about a hoaky Hasselhoff we can all easily recognize as satirical, to a teenage, fuck-the-world, punk-rock DIY printing party where we’re all getting fucked up and plotting the downfall of civilization. Of course, this (wild) interpretation is predicated on the location of the other artworks on view, Looping Swans and Kimilsungia; predicated on the idea that the “domestic” (cringe again) locations of those artworks is indeed significant; I think what’s probably more important is the fact that Looking for Freedom is itself an artwork which performs a production that is likely, or at least plausible, to be taking place in that location (a garage). Therefore, Looking for Freedom doesn’t transcend the space of the garage; rather, it uses it as a subject. Now let’s go up to the house.
First of all, that the gallery space of Adjunct Positions is designated by a four-foot wide installation of white laminate flooring over whatever synthetic oak-looking flooring makes up the rest of the house is architecturally insane but pleasantly mysterious. I won’t dwell on it here, because chances are if you visit this space enough, you get used to it, and you adjust; but Kimilsungia, the artwork installed therein, seems tailor-made for it, which consequently makes it seem like an additional, utterly artificial addition to the artwork. The artwork itself is a series of identical orchids in matching pots displayed on those floating white laminate IKEA shelves. The artificiality of this artwork is overwhelming, despite the “natural” flowers, and I don’t know what to make of that feeling quite yet. Another part of Kimilsungia is the bronze plaque, which you could almost miss if it wasn’t so clearly defined on the gallery map. The plaque reads “In 1964 the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea acquired its own flower, a botanical symbol of the nation. Its name is the ‘kimilsungia,’ or ‘flower of Kim Il Sung.’ Later, in 1979, a special greenhouse, the Central Botanical Garden in Pyongyang, was created to specifically grow ‘kimilsungia,’ also known as ‘the flower of loyalty.’”
Actually, the first thing I did when I walked inside the house was go straight for the couch, to watch whatever was on the little TV, an artwork called Looping Swans. The artwork is the television set, VCR, and VHS tape, and a looping video, 1 minute 28 seconds in length. At the opening, which was a perfectly lovely event I could have spent all night at, I sat for at least a half an hour on that couch, watching/looking at Looping Swans over and over until I no longer saw or heard anything in particular, but was instead hypnotized by the incessant stepping, glitching, and musical stylings of that video. But what was I looking at? A ballet, of course; or, a recording of a performance of a ballet. An old recording, made apparent by the filmic blurring and stretching of the image, and the otherworldly blue light emanating from it. I’ll guess that the ballet is Swan Lake, but only because of the title of the artwork, Looping Swans. Oh, and there’s an orchid on the table next to the TV set, and the table is from IKEA.
Have we covered everything, at least what there is to be seen with the eyes? Looping Swans is a sculpture and a video, set up in the weirdly tight living room at the back of the house. According to the title sheet, its media is listed as Television set, VCR, VHS tape. Kimilsungia refers to the orchids and the bronze plaque; its media is listed as orchids, bronze plaque. Looking for Freedom is the opening night performance, and its media is listed as stanchions and screen prints. So, what patterns are emerging? We’ve got celebrities hither and thither; Reagan, Hasselhoff, Kim Il Sung, Swan Lake. We’ve got flowers; orchids, to be exact; the Flower of Loyalty, to be exacter; and, perhaps most profoundly and transcendently, we have IKEA.
My idea of what this show is is a really bumpy roller coaster ride. One minute I’m thinking it’s all about garages and rebellion (especially in contrast to the uniformity of flowers and ballet, sitting docile in front of the TV set, blending into the domestic scenery, yet totally artificial, banal); the next, I’m thinking it’s all about the transcendental, cross-cultural power of IKEA (313 stores across 38 counties!). It’s fucking fascinating (curse word used for emphasis) that IKEA never makes its way into the materials list, since its the clear through-line between all the artworks, bringing How the West Was One closer to a cohesive thought made up of small, distinct artworks. If IKEA is missing from the materials list, then what else must be missing? It could be anything.
Regina walked me through How the West Was Won on the Monday after the show opened. BUT that was nearly a week ago (at the time of this writing), and so I cannot remember the specifics of what she said. This memory lapse allowed me to retain most of the original sensation of encountering the show, and before I discuss our conversation a little bit, I will make a few last observations.
When you sit and watch Looping Swans for a long time, you start to feel exhausted; exhausted empathetically for the performers, but also visually and aurally fatigued by the repetition. In some way there is a cruelty to this kind of endless loop of dance, which outside of being impossible is also painful. So, we are presented with this kind of fantasy world of pain and rigidity, so much so that the orchids, a beautiful and somewhat reputationally temperamental flower, become a little bit human. The rigidity and suffering of the endless performance in Looping Swans is transposed onto the orchids of Kimilsungia, which appear in your peripheral vision (and to the left of the TV) and it is suddenly very, very clear how a flower could be used as a means of subjugation, especially in a gendered way. And if flowers can be used in this way, so can anything, right? Even Hasselhoff? Exactly.
Earlier in this writing, I was making some crazy argument about garages; I was thinking about the site of the house as being specific to a house and its house-parts. Partially, this is because my disbelief in the site as a house is never suspended, and this complicates my interpretation of the artwork. I don’t really think Regina meant for the garage to “be” a garage, although it did not come up in our conversation. We did talk about the complexities of having a performance, and then showing the gallery/garage with the performance “remnants.” She was undecided about what purpose the stanchions now served; should the audience be prevented from walking around in the previously “performers only” area, scattered with the Hasselhoff prints and beer cans? Actually, there were only two cans, and we dedicated a significant amount of time discussing if the cans should be in there, or not. Like, who wants to see empty beer cans in an art show? It seems sort of pretentious. For me, it always makes me feel like I missed the party, and I hate missing the party, because if I missed it, I probably wasn’t invited. I think I saw Looking for Freedom in a kind of intermediary state; it was still literally “as-is” from the performance, with nothing re-staged, nothing moved. We were both looking at it, trying to make sense of it—me from the perspective of having witnessed the performance, and Regina from the perspective of having conceived and staged it. This is a good place to be in art; something intermediary, where thoughts have an opportunity to form, float, and dissipate, maybe even stick. If I was unable to form a non-reductive cohesive thought about Looking for Freedom, it’s because it’s not an artwork that values cohesive thoughts, or finished products; it’s a series of suspiciously clear moving parts waiting (and willing) to be surprised by what they produce.
That being said, I learned a lot of really interesting stuff from my walk-through with Regina. Apparently Hasselhoff has a much greater political resonance than I knew—especially in Germany, where he is über popular (haha). And I thought Regina said that during the cold war, the Russian government played Swan Lake on repeat, so that no news coverage was accessible; but clearly my brain oversimplified that part of the story, because Regina sent me this to clarify: “When tanks rolled into Moscow on 19 August 1991 during a dramatic anti-Perestroika coup by Soviet hardliners, the USSR’s state-controlled airwaves offered a curious response—a continuous loop of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.” The story of the orchids is practically a hero’s journey, involving a trip to North Korea where Regina purchased these special orchid seeds, and then worked with a greenhouse in Hawaii for the past year to grow them in a special way. The IKEA fixtures are not coincidental, either, but Regina explained that she wanted to limit the information she gave about the work, so that the interpretations could be broad. I can totally appreciate this instinct; artists like Regina, driven to research-based artwork (based might be too strong, perhaps inspired) often have a clear, correct outcome for their work. That Regina is focused on ways to expand the possibilities of content, not restrict them, is certainly something I feel excited about—I just wonder if the instinct to broaden a specific artwork through omitting the specifics of its making really achieves that. After all, isn’t it structure itself that helps us test the boundaries of our thought, our production?
I said that IKEA was the only clear through-line between the artworks, and in a superficial way, it is; but the title of the show as a whole, How the West Was Won, is spinning political; that there is a west, yes, but also, that it was won. Okay, that’s quite obvious, but I am saying that each individual artwork depicts a kind of nationalism, or some kind of propaganda—Swan Lake was used somewhat openly as a means of propaganda, if I understand the story correctly; the Kimilsungia is also thinly veiled, or not (the flower of loyalty!); and then Hasselhoff; of course he’s being sold and disseminated to us, too. How the West Was Won is a complex art show, and has proven good at producing some complicated, albeit slightly confusing, thoughts in response, at least for me. This may sound silly, but my favorite part of How the West Was Won is that IKEA products slip there way into all of Regina’s artworks, hidden in plain sight. It gives them, of course, the same status as the orchid. And while we do not all have rows of exotic plants or a penchant for screen printing 80s-era celebrities, we probably have a Hemnes or a Billy somewhere in our living spaces, secured to the floor or wall, affordable yet stylish in a “neutral” way; keeping us satisfied, if not aspirational—at least for the moment.
Thank you to Sarah for editing this text!