BY David Barrett in Reviews | 07 MAY 95
Featured in
Issue 22

Michael Joo

BY David Barrett in Reviews | 07 MAY 95

Just before I left for the gallery, my computer crashed. The screen informed me that my files were unreadable. What could I do with this eminently sealed box? The message helpfully provided a number detailing the type of error that had occurred, but helpful to whom - me? I had no information concerning what this number related to nor how to proceed if I did. The problem was out of my control - I was helpless or, rather, totally dependent. And so the scene was set for my meeting with Michael Joo's exhibition.

At the gallery entrance is a small diagram made by Joo during one of his motorcycle sojourns into the woods of New York State. Titled Triple Cycle of Failure (Tricycle to Transcendence) (all works 1995), it shows - in words - a cyclical system based on the phonetic similarity of the terms 'aesthetic', 'acetic' and 'ascetic'. This is the starting point for the three sculptures that make up CRASH (A Failed Ascetic) which covers crashes in science, industry and religion. Now hang onto your hats...

In ASCETIC/ACETIC (Broken Arm Shiva) the religious-symbol-turned-pop-icon is represented by broken-limb casts re-moulded in aluminium. Laid on the floor and hollowed-out, they contain glass vials of rice wine held in place with bone-pins. These reference acupuncture in the same way that aluminium, being an alloy, references hybridisation. The wine is the clue to the 'ascetic/acetic' as the ascetic (traditionally a monk) will refuse to partake of the wine, leaving it to become vinegar - a watered-down form of acetic acid and a less elitist, more useful product. This would then enable the abstainer to consume the product, leading to a failed ascetic - or a failed failure to consume - and hence a religious crash.

On a wall hangs CRASH (Computer Discs), comprising two computer hard-disk drives held apart by a suspension bar. The whole lot is encased in resin to form two cells splitting away from one another. The left hand disc has a line where the computer crashed, while the pole is etched with the impressive statement: CALORIES TO CRASH: 0.521 CAL. PER SECOND. This is, in fact, the number of calories required to drive a car, as calculated by Joo's highly speculative and, potentially, grossly inaccurate methods. An obvious scientific crash.

Dominating the space is RICE BURNER (Split Sled Triumph Rickshaw), where a pair of rubber cast Triumph motorcycle engines appear to have collided with each other, splitting open a 25kg bag of monosodium glutamate at the point of impact. The exhaust pipes have been cast in plexiglass and extended into suspension bars. They have also been filled with more MSG. So Triumph - the pride of British industry - has been castrated by MSG and turned into rickshaws, beaten by Asian motorcycles (derogatively Christened 'rice-burners') thus producing an industrial crash. Remember that monosodium glutamate is a flavour enhancer that acts with the body rather than upon it - actually making the taste-buds more receptive, rather than simply adding a new flavour. It is described by Joo as a synthetic salt, and hence a synthetic sweat. It also causes many people to exhibit an allergic reaction, and so is seen, stereotypically, as a potent magical product from the Orient. It artificially resembles something that could be distilled from the body; and what is stereotyping if not a distillation of characteristics? I could go on, but there comes a point where you simply cannot follow Joo's reasoning, and it is questionable what value is to be had from his explanations anyway. The problem boils down to a question of language: we have to wonder whether artists communicate through language or whether they communicate through phenomena.

There are many issues raised in Joo's work if you are in possession of the same specialist knowledge and mind-set as he. To talk to him is to discover just how many positions are put forward and questioned by his work, but only a fraction of these are within reach of the non-ideal viewer. We seem to be left in the position of having to see the work not as language but as a phenomenon - just another thing in the world. Joo's work is not only about pseudo-scientific authoritarianism and racial/cultural hybridisation, it actually becomes pseudo-scientific authoritarianism and racial/ cultural hybridisation - not so much a communication as a thing in itself. This is a process referred to by Jasper Johns when he stated that you could look at a painting in the same way that you look at a radiator.

When confronted by a work of this complexity you have to take a mental step back and wonder if it is an overly-complicated work, or a work about over-complication. Certainly, Joo claims that his work is not didactic - neither commentary nor critique - but simply 'just there'. This leaves us in a quandary: if we have a gripe about, say, the way doctors use Latin terminology as a way of blinding the public, do we then step back and say 'hey, the fact that doctors use Latin terminology as a smokescreen is the perfect embodiment of my gripe about the way that doctors use Latin terminology as a smokescreen.'? No, we don't. The problem is obvious: we can step back from anything in this way. So, if an artist is not using a language made up of signs, symbols and so forth, they are simply adding more of whatever it is that they are concerned with. Which is fine if the artist is concerned with things that will improve our lot -- like Beuys, who wanted peeling a potato to be art. If it is bad art, then at least it is good stuff. But if the artist is making work concerned with something that they see as negative, then they are compounding the problem; adding, not critical language, just stuff.