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East and West

Cultures and Ideas Collide in Heady Installation Show

An installation view of Eun Woo Cho's work.

By Alex Ebstein | Posted 2/4/2009

Two Person Juried Exhibition: Liz Ensz and Eun Woo Cho

Through Feb. 7 at School 33

School 33's two-person show, guest-curated by Andrea Pollan of Washington's Curator's Office, presents the new work of two female installation artists, Baltimore's Liz Ensz and New York's Eun Woo Cho. Both artists work large scale with mixed-media, using intentionally limited palettes in these pieces. With much of the work created specifically for this show, it's a serendipitously appropriate pairing. Ensz and Cho separately tackle unique cultural tribulations, from a similarly intense, personal perspective. The two projects, focusing on questions of religious and cultural identity, fill the space both vertically and interactively, with an even split between the artists' respective Western and Eastern motifs.

Historical religious strife is a recurring theme in Ensz's work, and in her new pieces, "Does the Light of God Blind You or Lead the Way Home for You?" and "This End Is a Beginning, This Beginning Is an End," she revisits these concerns. Abandoning her typically vibrant palette, Ensz's enormous fabric pieces are a minimal, and conspicuously allegorical, black and white. Reusing previous patterns of religious symbols--the Star of David, crosses, and the Islamic star and crescent moon--interspersed with various artillery, Ensz uses a fabric reduction process called devoré to create murky, translucent tapestries of tense imagery. Hung from floor to ceiling like the walls of a sanctuary, the back-lit images glow with a false lull, mimicking their religious origins.

While the presentation is beautifully solemn, "Does the Light" lacks the subtlety of Ensz's colorful works, which are so awesomely dense and elaborate that their political overtones often come as a surprise. Here, you feel prompted by her color choices, and somewhat expect to look for the ominous. Ensz pairs this piece with a contrastingly hopeful, white fountain in front of a marble-like velvet wall. Using a floral design, Ensz invokes images of cyclical renewal--buds to wilting blooms and back to buds again. "This End Is a Beginning, This Beginning Is an End" is only the second time Ensz has used fiberglass in an installation. With astonishing craftsmanship, she has wielded the material into a flawless, three-dimensional Moorish fountain, with similarly decorative, translucent panels. Her clean, exact hand translates seamlessly from medium to medium. The functioning, labor-intensive fountain and velvet backdrop still invite a comparison to religious holy places--without any blatant, religious iconography--rather than a specific, religious affiliation. Ensz has admittedly allowed the current, political spectrum to influence her art and, with this piece, offers a cautiously optimistic view of the future.

Cho's installation primarily involves video and presents images extracted from a previous live performance, "Red Skirt Project." Television screens rest on wooden props from the initial performance, dressed with fake flowers and Cho' signature red ribbons. The videos show young women dressed provocatively in red, interacting with the props and repeating at variously distorted lengths the word "ma," the Korean (and universal) word for "mother," as they make their way through the set. Cho's piece is purposely feminine, with the specific, personal context of the artist's Korean heritage.

The video alternates between the original, white lighting, and a chaotic, red filter. The shots in natural lighting are close-cropped, and personal, following faces and bodies closely. The girls interact playfully, revealing and re-concealing their breasts and emphasizing their naked legs. The red scenes show wooden props suspended from ribbon, the chanting intensifies, and the girls struggle to climb to an unreachable, precarious summit. An assemblage of cryptic fragments and symbols add up to a perpetually ambiguous sentiment, and its power is in that ambiguity. With continually looping references to a collective struggle, shame, and a desire to remain connected to one's roots while exploring conflicting ideals, the video is never resolved. Cho explores the simultaneous omnipresence of the duality of existing in two cultures and the perspectives it forces on her. The piece celebrates the beauty of the female form while grappling with the cultural stigmas placed on it.

As an installation, the original performance is dissected and re-examined, edited and multiplied on five monitors, affording a glimpse into Cho's creative process. Exhibited between photographs from the same performance and abstract sketches, the work reads as the past, present, and future of the piece as it continues to go through its various, dynamic mutations. Cho is constantly exploring and reinterpreting "identity" through her art.

With both installations sharing visual and thematic similarities, the overall exhibition is visually powerful and dense in its subtext. Together, the two pieces echo one another's elaborate simplicity, a struggle to place themselves within the context of their roots and their art. Ornate decoration becomes chaotic paranoia, which in turn melts fluently into temporary resolutions, where their questions are picked up again.

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Tags: School 33, Liz Ensz, Eun Woo Cho

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