This is a season of big ideas at the ASU Art Museum. Sex, self, gender, time -- take your pick. If you don't walk out of these shows thinking, you might need a box of mental floss.
Begin with Janis Lewin's "The Aftermath (9/11)." You may feel as if you've seen all the 9/11 images you can take, but Lewin's photographs are emotional without being manipulative, and they have truths to tell about New York City specifically and about collective grief more generally.
Move from there into the exuberance of "Subjectivity: Photography of Themselves," a roundup of works by contemporary photographers who use themselves as subjects. After the sobering experience of "Aftermath" -- a visual reminder of the too-recent times when people wondered aloud what role art could play -- it's a balm to see artists asking questions about the world and our place in it, asserting themselves in ways comforting and discomforting.
Arno Rafael Minkkinen, a Finnish photographer whose work here spans from 1973 to 1990, incorporates his body into his compositions as if he's part of the landscape or the furniture. His skinny frame is unmistakable, its presence a gently comical but slightly defiant gesture, a kind of physical "Kilroy was here."
Atlanta-born photographer Anthony Goicolea, at 31 the youngest in the group, evokes the violent confusion of male adolescence in disturbing montages that look like they might be stills from an Eastern European version of Lord of the Flies. And Zhao Bandi, from Beijing, combines deadly serious public-service messages about drugs, violence and AIDS with deliberately stagy, over-the-top images starring himself and a stuffed panda; the titles, which give the impression of having been directly and badly translated from Chinese, include "Is there anything more terrible than Me? It's DRUG!"
Climb the stairs and watch the video installations of European art star Pipilotti Rist. There are two in the first room, both on TVs. In I'm Not the Girl Who Misses Much, which dates from 1986, a blurry Rist dances around maniacally, her hair wild, her breasts spilling out of her black dress. Both the images and the soundtrack -- Rist singing the beginning of the Beatles' "Happiness Is a Warm Gun," followed by a snatch of John Lennon's version -- speed up and slow down. Mostly they are so crazy-fast that Rist sounds like one of the Chipmunks, and her herky-jerky movements begin to look involuntary, as if she's trapped in a masochistic exercise routine. Altogether, it's funny and it's sad, and it's hard to stop watching.
In Pickelporno, close-up images of a naked man and woman exploring each other are interspersed with vivid shots of fruit and flowers to create an organic, orgasmic experience. Rist presents the body itself as a landscape, reminding the viewer that sex is natural in the literal sense. (Do not be alarmed if you find yourself humming the George Michael riff, "Sex is natural, sex is good; not everybody does it, but everybody should," some hours afterward.)
Walk next door into Sip My Ocean, Rist's lush, underwater dream set to the haunting Chris Isaak song "Wicked Game." Again, it's Rist singing, while on two walls we see mirror images of bodies swimming, underwater landscapes merging, and domestic objects -- a china teacup, a metal pitcher -- sinking into the sea's sandy bed. You can sit on the floor or lean against the wall, or even dance through the projection making shadows, but stay awhile and watch. If you've seen the Chris Isaak video for "Wicked Game," think about how it was filmed on a tropical beach and starred a supermodel pretending to be in love (or lust -- what's the difference in most standard music videos?) with Isaak. Then think about the fact that Rist's version takes place beneath the water's surface, and listen for the distant, powerful little voice that screams along with the song's refrain.
Later, walk upstairs to see "Ideas About Time," an exhibition of photographs by ASU professor Mark Klett. Many of the images here -- a toy horse branded with ballpoint ink, a warped LP impaled on a branch in the desert -- ask us to look at the traces we leave behind, and to consider what those traces say about who we are. It's an especially fitting lens through which to view both "Subjectivity" and Rist's sly, passionate work.
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