Shaken & Stirred by 'Mori'

By Jessica Dawson
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, December 3, 2005

Low growls from the immersive sound installation "Mori" travel all the way to the Arlington Arts Center's front door. Those rumbles swell to roars when visitors make their way past the work's curtained entrance, up its spherical ramp and into its darkened central chamber.

In the sanctum's center, a well beckons. Down we look and there, flickering in the darkness, is the wellspring of modern life: a computer monitor.

Restless lines making their way across the screen register the source of the surround-sound experience: seismological data from the Hayward Fault at a point in Berkeley, Calif., arriving in real time via the Internet. Cocooned in blackness, we're nowhere near the action that orchestrates our unnerving experience.

An earthwork for the technological age, "Mori" has programming that allows tectonic plate movement to "conduct" prerecorded sound files. It took a team of four artists to conceive and build the piece in 1999. Internet artist (and University of California at Berkeley robotics professor) Ken Goldberg dreamed up the concept. Artist Randall Packer, the man behind the satirical Web-based performance "U.S. Department of Art and Technology," composed sound samples -- rock slides, volcanic eruptions, avalanches, explosions -- and wrote the software to modulate them. Gregory Kuhn designed the black box and its surroundings. Wojciech Matusik programmed software that transforms seismographic data into visible waves. Thanks to the team's efforts, the data from Hayward don't generate sound so much as guide it, like a conductor working with instruments supplied by the artists.

If the technological components of the piece are complex, its execution is decidedly more modest. Its entrance is signaled by black curtains hung from a simple wood frame, and interior walls are likewise draped with curtains; a lighted handrail guides us in. At the entrance, another computer monitor dating back to 1999 -- the Jurassic period, in technological terms -- stands guard, registering data on a dated interface. It all feels wrenchingly low-tech.

The Earth's mood determines each visitor's experience. On my visit, the piece emitted nonstop grumbles punctuated by loud crashes that rattled my nerves. I found out the next day that my visit coincided with a series of earthquakes that rattled Iran; the Berkeley seismograph likely registered their aftershocks.

While I stood in relative safety, halfway around the globe thousands of people were experiencing real fear.

The artists' Web site explains that the title, "Mori," links the Japanese term for "forest-sanctuary" with the Latin "reminder of mortality." The enigmatic term refers to memento mori: a reminder or warning of death, often conveyed through art. Or it conjures an earthen sanctuary.

But the work's most compelling reading is a technological one. "Mori" uses the Internet to comment on our age of interconnectivity. Technology may allow us to receive information in real time, but we're safely removed from the scene. Information sharing becomes another theme park ride: a secondhand experience that mimics real danger, never forcing us to reckon with it. Tapping into this paradox is "Mori's" greatest strength.

Wayne Gonzales at Conner

If the apocalypse has a color scheme, it'll be Wayne Gonzales's acrid yellows and greens. The New Yorker's small show of paintings at Conner Contemporary Art brings together a smattering of disparate works -- recent riffs on luxury advertising along with a painting from the artist's political works in the early part of this decade -- unified by a blinding palette. Each of Gonzales's pictures plays on its photographic source material in the most self-conscious of ways.

In his versions of five-star resorts and fancy restaurants, Gonzales paints images based on photographs culled from the Internet. He renders the images as if from oversize Benday dots, the staples of printing, so the final images resemble strangely colored newspaper photos. Such plays on reproduction seem forced.

The incongruous addition of a large portrait of a young soldier refers to Gonzales's works, circa 2001, exploring the photographic records of the Kennedy assassination. The fey soldier with the delicate features capped by a too-big helmet is the result of the artist's morphing of his own 1975 high school yearbook photo with a newspaper photo of Lee Harvey Oswald as a U.S. Marine. Though it may derive from works done several years ago, the image of a soldier certainly resonates with contemporary politics.

These pools and restaurants, and the boy soldier, too, deliver a corrosive message about the images bombarding us. Gonzales's ferrous palette undermines all sense of the good life that these pictures -- and, perhaps, our war efforts -- might be selling.

Mori at Arlington Arts Center, 3550 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, Tuesday-Saturday11 a.m.-5 p.m., 703-248-6800, to Jan. 7; and .

Wayne Gonzales at Conner Contemporary Art, 1730 Connecticut Ave. NW, Tuesday-Saturday 10 a.m.-5p.m., 202-588-8750, to Dec. 17; .

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