Visual Arts

"Grief: Sukiyaki" at Eye Lounge Bids Sayonara to Lost Love

The breakup gods are being summoned at eye lounge.

As part of the installation "Grief: Sukiyaki," Jenna Duncan has organized the west half of the Phoenix gallery into an informal pop-up Shinto shrine, with different "stations." First, there is a Purification Station, in case one might want to use the ladles provided to rinse off their hands or the small cups to rinse out their mouths. Next comes the Love Letter Shrine, featuring photocopied letters arranged on the wall above a small desk set, with floral arrangements and a simple bowl filled with grains of rice. The handout accompanying the show says, "Please clap hands to summon Break-Up Kami-sama (gods)."

Spirits thusly summoned, I turn to read the letters. One dated October 2005 says, "I love you more than chocolate, more than tori amos, more than autumn leaves . . ." That seems like as good a declaration of love as any.

With this preparation in hand, I turn to the main attraction on the center wall — a 5½-minute video featuring Aya, a shrine priestess of sorts, who is dressed as a maiko. A maiko is an apprentice geisha, and Aya appears in a medium-framed shot wearing kimono and obi. Maiko usually appear with heavy white makeup, but Aya's face appears unadorned. She cries out, lamenting her lost love. She sings the lyrics to the pop song "Sukiyaki" in English and Japanese.

"Sukiyaki" was a hit in 1963 for Japanese crooner Kyu Sakamoto, reaching the top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart. It was also a hit for A Taste of Honey in 1981 with new lyrics: "It's all because of you, I'm feeling sad and blue . . ."

Between the singing, lines of text appear on the screen, such as "Even the ghost of you is still pretty good company" and "I will haunt you in your sleep."

As I watch, I wonder: Who is calling? Who is answering? Is it Aya, or could it be the lost lover who will haunt our sleep? Is she without makeup because she is a more contemporary maiko, or is the artist trying to show us what is behind the decoration?

After listening to her song, I turn to the next station of Duncan's pop-up Shinto Shrine — an emi wall. Emi are wooden placards. Visitors write wishes (prayers) on them, then hang them on an altar wall. Some of the placards at "Grief: Sukiyaki" are painted with full hearts; some bear lightning bolts. Visitors to the gallery have written wishes on the backs. My favorite says, "Please help us see others as we see our grandmothers and treat them as such."

The last station is Omikuji. This is a rack of paper fortune scrolls tied to strings. Untie one and read the fortune inside.

Eye lounge is a collective of local emerging artists, with an emphasis, often, on "emerging" — and, frankly, I was not altogether surprised to learn that this is Jenna Duncan's first installation. It's also the first in a five-part series she is working on called "Hystrionics." The series will comprise video and accompanying mixed media depicting theatrical presentations of women in various stages of emotional meltdown.

Duncan grew up in Phoenix; her academic background is in Japanese studies. She returned to the Valley just over a year ago after receiving an master's from The New School in New York. I asked her about the other parts that will make up the series.

"The next video that I am writing is a drunken, angry country girl," she says. "The emotion to be represented will be scorn. I have not picked out a song yet, but I do have a local singer in mind." As to the other parts, she's mum.

I'd like to hear more — in more ways than one. This show is good, but it could be even better.

When I think of histrionics, I think of displays of emotion that are excessively dramatic — Karen Finley letting it fly, for example. But for a show titled "Hystrionics," there is something tentative about this work. Perhaps it's that I sense there is something autobiographical in Jenna Duncan's desire to explore these characters, and I want to see more of that anchoring the work. I want to see more energy put toward intention — if I could plug in to that, I'd be willing to go further along on an emotional ride.

I encourage Duncan to push this envelope harder in her next installation. Let's face it: When you get right down to it, women are allowed such a narrow range of behaviors (even female artists) that I'd like to see her persuade these characters to let it rip. Take the makeup off, sing, cry, and scorn. But at the same time, let "Grief" be the wind-up for really hitting us — with not just the histrionics, but what's simmering beneath.

For "Grief: Sukiyaki," Aya is looking to say goodbye to lost love. There is some strength to be found, some relationship, between grief and feelings of wish fulfillment. Walking through this pop-up Shinto shrine in some ways mimics the stages of grief. The Purification Station, with its water cleansing, is like shedding tears, the Love Letter Shrine like that stage in grief when you surround yourself with all the mementos — spread out all the "proof" — for re-examination and reconsideration.

Here's to untying a paper scroll in the hopes of finding the directions for moving on.