Getting to know site-specific installations at ASU, SMoCA

If you are intrigued by the trend in visual art toward site-specific, mixed-media installation versus the more commonplace paintings, drawings, sculptures, etc., then you might want to check out three shows at the ASU Art Museum and the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art.

First: “Wendy Maruyama: Executive Order 9066″ at the Arizona State University Art Museum, running through January 4, 2014. It’s immediately obvious when you enter the gallery housing Maruyama’s work that you are about to experience the Japanese-American internments of World War II in a much different way. The artist has hung white luggage tags in haystack-like fashion from the ceiling, each tag bearing the name and destination of an internee — there must be thousands of them. The gallery walls showcase Maruyama’s wooden dioramas of deceptively pastoral scenes at the camps, along with family photographs and other memorabilia. In a corner of the gallery is a hovering of suitcases once owned by the many families who were rounded up and who suddenly suffered the humiliation of being seen as enemies. The suitcases jarringly reminded me of exhibits I have seen at Holocaust museums.

Executive Order 9066 refers to President Roosevelt’s February 1942 authorization of internment camps for 120,000 citizens and emigres from Japan during a time of tension with the Far East. A map as you enter the room is a cold reminder that Arizona was the site of camps at Poston and Gila River. The artist, by the way, is a third-generation Japanese-American and an art professor at San Diego State University.

Also at the ASU Art Museum is “Crafting a Continuum: Rethinking Contemporary Craft,” but only until Saturday, December 7. If you can, look at Christine Lee’s installation, “Shims: Thousands of Uses — Use #28,” which is a sly and wonderful arrangement of white-washed wooden shims packed like sardines onto 15 feet of wall.

Not an installation but still a highlight of “Contemporary Craft” is Tom Eckert’s “MM342 (Tank Chair),” a trompe l’oeil piece composed of bent, carved and turned maple — it’s a lifesize chair with Army tank wheels as legs. To me, it was both beautiful and alarming as I related it to the number of war veterans who are coming home to life in a wheelchair. Elsewhere in the exhibition, I enjoyed a grouping of vessels employing unusual materials; I’m talking salmon skin, hog gut, shoe leather laces, springs, staples and business cards. That’s “rethinking,” to say the least.

Second: See “Julianne Swartz: How Deep is Your” at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art before it leaves January 26, 2014. Not only is it a glowing example of what site-specific installation art is all about, but it is also family-friendly, with something to delight everyone. Get close to the freestanding sculptures and delicate mobiles to see and hear them. Yes, “hear” them; just don’t touch them.

The keynote work, as perhaps you’ve noticed from media coverage, is the title piece, for which Swartz has wound blue pipe through the innards and along the ceiling of the museum itself. The funnel at the end is there for you, my dears. Stick your head into it to hear snippets of that Bee Gees song, as well as John Lennon’s “Love.” Also, to heighten the emotional warmth, it’s OK to open “Box,” which lies nearby. I won’t spoil it by revealing what’s inside.

Swartz, a former Scottsdale resident and now internationally known multimedia artist, previously installed “How Deep is Your” at the DeCordova Sculpture Park outside of Boston.

But that’s not all, as far as site-specific work at SMoCA this season. Also see “Narrow Road to the Interior: Contemporary Japanese Artists,” on view until January 12, 2014. Along with the stunning yet delicate works in a variety of mediums, you will want to take a moment away from the seasonal hubbub to sit inside Masao Yamamoto’s site-specific installation of a teahouse. Remove your shoes, meditate upon the spare quality within, stare off into whatever, enjoy.

Wait, wait, there’s more: Come February 1, 2014, SMoCA will open “The Five Senses,” a whimsical installation of five rooms by five artists, each exploring one of the five senses. The artists include Janet Cardiff and Ernesto Neto. Yes, you will be able to taste; enough said.

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