Copyright 2000 The Hearst Corporation
The San Francisco Examiner
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March 9, 2000, Thursday
LENGTH: 1108 words
HEADLINE: Pipeline to the Beyond;
Artists examine, ironically and otherwise, non-mainstream spiritual beliefs,
often involving UFOs
BYLINE: David Bonetti
SOURCE: EXAMINER ART CRITIC
Quackery rules these days at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. The three shows
that run through April 30 under the rubric of
"(extra)super[meta]" feature art work and objects that derive from, participate in and comment on
activities and belief systems surrounding non-mainstream spirituality. The
title itself is a clever derivation from extraterrestrial, supernatural and
metaphysical. It also could have incorporated
"para" for paranormal and paranoid, but things usually sound better in groups of
threes. With so many of the spiritually gullible walking the streets, this
could prove to be a popular show.
"Heaven's Gate was the spark," curators Ren de Guzman and Arnold Kemp write about
"Above and Beyond," the large group show that is the trio's centerpiece.
"The image of the black-shrouded corpses with Nike sneakers broadcast by all the
news media crystallized everything in contemporary culture that spoke of fringe
belief systems and their hold on our imagination," they continue.
"It was a truly painful moment when popular culture, advertising, New Age
spirituality and the paranormal collided and forcefully entered our collective
The quackery in
"Above and Beyond" ranges from the fervent to the ironic. What exactly are we to make of the
Aetherius Society, a group founded in London in 1955 that supports outposts on
three continents, including one in - where els e? - Los Angeles? The society
believes, according to the curators, that extraterrestrials constantly visit
the Earth and that
"advanced beings from within our solar system have helped mankind throughout the
centuries." The objects representing this
cult include a video tape of believers testifying to their faith, holy rocks
gathered from spiritual places such as Mount Baldy and the pice-de-rsistance, a
"prayer battery" that stores the faithful's prayer energy. This last object, a baby-blue
contraption the size of a toaster, utterly lacks aura.
Another work steeped in quackery is Dennis Balk's
"Photo Magnetic Receiver," a device hidden inside a tent, like that of The Great Oz, that aims to enable
us to see UFOs more easily by heightening our perceptions. Simulating a display
at a trade fair, the Orgone Box-like
"Photo Magnetic Receiver" consists of a pair of walls equipped with lights that you sit between after
drinking a liquid that, you are promised, is not harmful. Outside the tent,
text panels of techno-gibberish explain, none too satisfactorily, the machine's
For the benefit of The Examiner readers, I
risked all by drinking the potion and going through the process. But
unfortunately I have to report that I have not subsequently seen any UFOs. The
fact that Balk is pulling our legs partially redeems the experience but does
not justify the time spent with it.
Two photographers are of particular interest and appeal. The Vancouver-based
Douglas Curran has spent a decade searching the hinterlands for UFOs, flying
saucers and the people who regularly see and monitor their passing. His dozen
color prints are solidly in the documentary tradition, but what he documents
deviates from the street scenes and family sagas that dominate that genre.
Curran's subjects are true believers in the extraterrestrial and their naive
folkloristic creations. He captures phenomena ranging from minimalist sculptor
"Jene Highstein's Concrete Flying Saucer" - a mushroom-shaped work of art that looks like a flying saucer - to
backyard productions that look as if they would never be able to take off, even
if the Great Whatever were to come to Earth and order them to fly.
The pictures reveal the sad lack of imagination common among those who believe
in the paranormal. Their flying saucers look just like those you've seen
represented - small, circular, pod-like metal constructions.
A clue to the problem is present in
"Betty Ann Luca constructed fiberglass replicas of the aliens who abducted her
aboard a flying saucer in 1967. Chesire, Connecticut." (All the pictures have caption-like titles.) Whatever Betty Ann Luca thought
happened to her, she had
to fall back on the most conventional representation of an
"alien" - a blue android-like creature with slit eyes - to express her experience.
Luca's thoroughly conventional living space with its cheesy glass and metal
furniture suggests that the people
who see UFOs and report paranormal experiences are desperate for some beauty or
magic in their lives. But lacking education, a level of culture above banality
or a meaningful philosophy or politics, they funnel their hallucinations into
the most predictable forms.
Charlie White's four large color photographs virtually steal the show, and they
play belief in the uncanny for comedy. In three of them, White digitally has
inserted rampaging monsters into scenes of everyday Los Angeles life - the
cafeteria of a college fraternity, a gym, and by the side of the road. In the
fourth, he has used the extraordinary skill of a Hollywood special effects lab
to create the head of a dead monster that has met its match. White's pictures
are hilarious and unsettling. The digital insertions are flawless, and you
believe, if only for a moment, that what you're seeing is a record of a
real event. Yet the images are so well-staged, they are also funny. The
disruption of the narcissism of a gym by the invasion of a marauding beast has
a certain rightness to it.
Jessica Bronson's videos - one of mirror-imaged lightning, the other of the
swirling vortex of a storm - are terrific, although they only tangentially
touch on the show's subject. And veteran minimalist John McCracken's four
sculptures, two stainless steel and two polyester resin and fiberglass, are, as
always, charged with an immanence, but it is a little disconcerting to realize
that the artist has said that he has thought that he was creating objects that
could have been brought here by a UFO.
"Above and Beyond" is by turns amusing and irritating, but it seldom convinces that anything
really exists beyond what we can see. (Nor was that its intention.) However, it
doesn't even touch on the distinction between beliefs in the supernatural and
conventional spirituality. For instance, are Catholic beliefs in bodily
assumption and transubstantiation any less kooky than those of the Aetherius
"(extra)super[meta]" also includes a one-person show of British artist David Miles' cardboard
devices that help him get through the perils of the day and an installation by
Bay Area media artist Jim Campbell that demonstrates the extrasensory-like
possibilities of the viewer existing in multiple locations simultaneously.
GRAPHIC: COLOR PHOTO,
"Jene Highstein's Concrete Flying Saucer," a photograph by Douglas Curran, at the current show at Yerba Buena Center for
LOAD-DATE: March 10, 2000
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