Monday, June 21, 2004

Eddo Stern at AGO - N. Post June 19/04

Considering that: a) computer games have been around ever since A. S. Douglas invented a monitor version of Tic-Tac-Toe in 1952; and b) gaming is played almost religiously by millions for hours on end, you’d think the medium would have crept its way into a front-row position in contemporary art by now. Weirdly, it hasn’t. In fact, art that is based on computer gaming has barely morphed beyond fringe enthusiasts who alter games in smoky art dens and then try them out on like-minded friends. It’s still a sub-genre tucked within an inner circle. Most of what is made rarely surfaces in more traditional gallery settings.

There are always exceptions though, like L.A.-based artist Eddo Stern, 32, who has been turning war games into art about war games since the late 90s. In the process he’s built up a growing list of museum exhibitions on his CV. A half dozen of his sculptures and DVD projections are now on view at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

It’s pretty clear Stern’s aim is to take the aesthetic and culture of gaming to a whole new level of critical examination. His main interest is in the narrow margins between reality and fantasy which the gaming industry so cunningly dilutes. There isn’t a war game out there, Stern tells me, that isn’t based on a real war, yet "real war" computer games have only become popular since 9-11. Before then, software designers only went as far as creating the feel for a particular war. In other words, terrorists looked Arab but they weren’t called Arabs. Sept. 11, 2001 changed that completely.

Stern’s art takes two forms -- as sculptures, and as projections that have been spliced from digital combat sequences. The projections are stronger visually than the sculptures, but more on the sculptures later. A 20-minute projection titled Vietnam Romance (2003) works beautifully as a condensed history of the Vietnam War streamed into a montage of digital clips that have been taken from popular games which, in turn, have borrowed shamelessly from film classics like The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now. So you get the scene in Full Metal Jacket where the camera follows a prostitute through the streets of Saigon, but heavily altered and pixellated to something that looks similar to, as well as nothing like, the original. The main point Stern makes is that for the average tween gamer, this nostalgic and completely intoxicating collage is pretty much everything they know about that war.

Stern started thinking seriously about the hazy intersections between reality, fantasy and history in 1997 when he was in his Command and Conquer phase. "I grew up in Israel and served in the Israeli army," he says. "When I came to the U.S. to study I was playing a lot of computer games. Someone sent me a message saying, ‘I heard you lost six commandos yesterday.’ I realized they were talking about the news, not the game. They were talking about six Israeli commandos who got killed in Lebanon that day. I kind of freaked out for a second. I saw myself playing with these little commandos, it seemed a ridiculous investment in fantasy."

Stern started combining art and gaming shortly after that and came up with Sheik Attack which mapped U.S. combat fantasy games onto a real Israeli military narrative. Sheik Attack was made before 9-11, which in the gaming world was a defining moment when fiction and reality imploded. Since the Towers went down the most popular games have eliminated fiction for real plot lines and characters based on the two Gulf Wars. The most popular is America’s Army, a hugely successful and (I’m told) sophisticated game based on combats in Iraq. Even though it is made by the U.S. Army to attract recruits and can be downloaded for free, it’s played and reviewed in magazines like any other game.

Stern has made an altered version of America’s Army and embedded it into a large medieval castle made of white plastic. There is an obvious connection between history then and now being made in this sculpture, which brings me back to why these objects don’t work as well quite as his DVDs do. They’re intended to be art objects though they look more like what they actually are, which is monitors with things attached to them. Inevitably you just end up staring at the monitor waiting for something to happen, just as you always do in front of any monitor, castle or no castle.

In Crusaders too, a windmill is attached to a monitor that shows five posse-like characters walking endless forward. I’m not convince either of these work visually. They’re clunky, awkward, and unrefined. Actually, they remind me of the first portable phones when they were about the size of Kleenex boxes.

Eddo Stern runs until August 29 at the Art Gallery of Ontario , 317 Dundas Street West.

David Acheson at Chris Cutts Gallery - N. Post June 19/04

The meticulously fabricated tree in full bloom inside Christopher Cutts Gallery is by the ever-theatrical sculptor David Acheson who never skimps on craftsmanship or sardonic punch. Some may remember his earlier works have included a near perfect sculpture of a bear-shaped honey jar made to the scale of an actual baby cub, and gigantic ten-foot tall toddlers constructed out of bonemeal, epoxy and foam. Acheson’s faux-tree is one of a forest of 50 he has built over the years, though this is the first time one has been constructed inside a gallery, making this art not a prop. Generally, his artificial garden folly is commissioned by set designers or shopping mall planners looking for paradise underneath the fluorescent lights. Acheson has simply taken the nature vs. man-made nexus a few steps further by adding a swing to hold a video loop which tells a heartbreaking two-clip story — clip 1 is of a real tree being cut down to make way for a front yard driveway, and clip 2 is the artist at work building yet another Stepford tree in the produce section at Loblaws. --CO

David Acheson’s not is not runs until July 3 at Christopher Cutts Gallery 21 Morrow Avenue. $22,000.