Visual Arts

Pod Squad

You could belt out Blondie's "Call Me," or ABBA's "Dancing Queen." Maybe "Twist and Shout" by the Beatles. Fitting snugly in the cushiony pod, you select a song -- David Bowie's "Space Oddity" seems the most appropriate -- and sing into a microphone, your voice echoing against a chorus of harmonizing back-up vocalists. The flat screen in front of you plays a mesmerizing hyper-speed video of highway traffic as the song's lyrics flash in synch: "For here am I sitting in a tin can, far above the world."

Leave the capsule if you dare.

Actually, you're not floating in space. Lift the hatch of the pod and you'll remember that you're in a cavernous gallery at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art at the new installation "Lee Bul: Live Forever."

Lee's three fiber-glass karaoke pods each seat one person. They're soundproof when the hatch is closed, and oval windows provide the only link between the outside world and the womblike inner space, where the occupant sinks into rich leather upholstery colored shiny black, pale, silvery blue, or brilliant tangerine.

Don a pair of headphones, pick a song from the playlist, enter the selection into a small keypad and then start crooning into the microphone, free of stage fright.

"You're in this very private space in the pod, and you make a choice based on that isolation, but it's actually not a private choice. It can be publicly observed," explains Erin Kane, the museum's assistant curator. Outside the pod, people in the gallery can view an enormous wall projection of the same video with your song's words scrolling by.

The video playing in the first pod we tried, titled Anthem, takes you on a high-velocity trip on Korea's Chung-Gye elevated highway, a dilapidated former testament to Korean prosperity. With cars zooming by and bright lights streaking across the night sky, it could just as easily have been filmed in any city in the world.

Another pod, Live Forever (also the title of an Oasis song), uses a morphing effect to capture dancing couples from all angles in the Tonga Room at San Francisco's Fairmont Hotel. The shifting perspective gives the appearance of three-dimensionality and constant motion, a fitting approach to portraying a historic spot that's seen thousands of visitors but has remained the same throughout the decades. (Amateurs, the video originally paired with the third pod -- not being operated in this installation -- will not be screened.)

With the lights dimmed and gallery walls painted black, the stark, spotlighted display of the three pods is magical. Each biomorphic, vaguely phallic piece is bright white and tantalizingly glossy, shaped like the kind of fantasy car that you'd see in Japanese anime (animation) or manga (comics) -- or perhaps parked in Barbarella's garage. Lee is adept at exploring dichotomies, and with these pods she manages to evoke both Asian pop culture imagery, à la Speed Racer, and an American fascination with car culture, as well as a space-age kind of cool that's simultaneously futuristic and retro.

Lee, born in 1964 in Yongwol, South Korea, currently resides in Seoul, but routinely shows her work in such places as Venice, Paris, New York, Toronto and Tokyo. "Live Forever" is not Lee's first installation to incorporate karaoke equipment. "Gravity Greater Than Velocity I" (1999) had standing booths that could accommodate a few friends for a round of songs. The designs for these, as well as Lee's drawings for the current installation, are on display in a second gallery, along with a full-size pod prototype in bubblegum pink Styrofoam.

Kane says that it's significant that Lee's more recent works are shaped like vehicles. "[Cars] are these very personal spaces that we use as mobile home and office," she says. "When we're in them, we feel safe and protected, and are, in a lot of ways, unaware that people are only five feet away from us."

Sitting in a pod, completely encased in a one-person shell, you may have visions of those Japanese capsule hotels, where you can crash for the night in an individual cubby hole just big enough to sleep in. Those, too, are equipped with a TV and a radio, and they also stack people up within feet of each other in a sort of communal privacy.

Unlike the capsule hotels, though, which will probably never catch on in the U.S., karaoke is one of many Asian trends that has been fully embraced by Americans. In his article "Japan's Gross National Cool," published in Foreign Policy magazine, Douglas McGray argues that although Japan may never again be the economic superpower that it was during the high-flying '80s, its cultural influence -- from food and fashion to music and technology -- is more far-reaching than ever. Lee's karaoke installations remind us of what Asian pop culture has to offer; think of Hello Kitty and Pokémon overshadowing Mickey Mouse, Spirited Away winning an Academy Award, sushi in our supermarkets, and Takeshi Murakami's acid-bright, manga-inspired designs on Louis Vuitton handbags.

But the influence goes in both directions. Kane points out that all of the songs on Lee's playlists are huge American hits. "If you go to Korea or Japan, sometimes you get those in karaoke bars -- people who don't even speak English perform these songs," she says. "So it's an interesting study in American cultural dominance, which is a really controversial topic right now."

Kane seems impressed by Lee's compilation of evocative songs. "These songs that are so universal become personal narratives," she says. Like contemporary poetry, lyrics allow us to express our emotions; Kane cites mixed tapes as the perfect example of this. "She's chosen songs that are the soundtrack to people's lives."

And she's right. Plenty of us have shot into space with Major Tom. Commencing countdown for liftoff at SMoCA.