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THE NATURE OF MAN : Interactive Installations Put the Earth in Our Hands

May 09, 1991|CATHY CURTIS | Cathy Curtis covers art for The Times Orange County Edition.

"We've got it all planned out. Your education. The environment. Just do your job and behave yourself," says the recorded voice of a cheerful teacher in Beverly Naidus' imaginary classroom, one of three viewer-interactive installations in "Earth/People: A Teetering Relationship" at the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art.

"Keep the blinds closed," the teacher continues. "Stay in your room. Stay in your car. Keep tuned to your favorite program. . . . Things are just going to get better and better. . . . We believe in using the environment. . . . "

Meanwhile, a dreamier voice recalls what it was like to take "a deep breath of clean air" or "a quiet walk in the neighborhood." The voice worries about the homeless and the pace of contemporary life.

Naidus' installation, "Remote Control," emphasizes the value of questioning authority by replaying some of the unquestioned assumptions associated with the Sputnik Age and contrasting them with remarks about changes in environment that have occurred in subsequent decades.

In a statement, the artist says people who question the status quo are like "those weeds coming up through the pavement, who are our only hope." Apparently illustrating that idea--and underlining the environmental theme--a few of the students' desks are covered in plaster and hold sprouting plants, while the others are covered with disciplinary writing exercises ("I will not disagree with the teacher").

A message on the blackboard says: "Share a story about how your 'education' helped you feel connected with the web of life." In response, numerous visitors to the exhibit have left memories, complaints and miscellaneous remarks.

Many anonymous scribblers maintain that the best education happens outside the classroom. Some complain of cruel, uncaring or suspicious teachers ("My artwork was 'too good'--I was accused of tracing"). Others relish memories of youthful subversive behavior or simply the urge to look out the window. One writer notes that "some of us are rebellious enough not to resent our education!"

"Remote Control" is strident and unsubtle. Neither its form nor its message is particularly fresh. But the piece works on an "interactive" level because it sets up enough of an emotional context for viewers to be prodded into passionate responses of many kinds.

Sheila Pinkel's installation, "Latent Images," which attempts to place Earth's ills in a broader historical context--is more sophisticated as a work of art, yet the specific question it poses for the public yields mostly pat answers.

Made with xeroradiography, a photographic technique developed to detect cancerous breast tissue, Pinkel's delicate blue images reveal the internal structure of living things and their remnants (vegetables, fruit, leaves, fish, skulls) and man-made objects from several cultures used in religious ceremonies or representing otherworldly existence of various kinds (an angel, a spaceman).

Pinkel's list of questions and statements ("How old are roses?" "Light bulbs are 100 years old." "How old is toxic waste?") emphasizes the small blip of man's achievements and mistakes in a 15-billion-year-old universe.

Lining the walls are texts taken from diverse sources that document collisions between man and nature as well as locales where nature is still respected by humans.

For example, a 1910 text by a photographer--which accompanies a vintage photograph of decorous-looking visitors to a Native American reservation--observes that, since 1888, he has seen "entire tribes . . . destroyed by disease." On a brighter note, an essay by a presumably modern-day Thai student describes his "great respect" for bamboo, which, as he gracefully points out, can be used literally from cradle to coffin.

After digesting all this, viewers are asked to write their answers to a question--"How can we build a sense of community with people and with nature?"--that's simply too epic to elicit genuinely personal responses.

Answers to date, displayed in rather ecologically suspect plastic pockets on the wall, are mostly gung-ho slogans ("Feed the world now") or pious exhortations ("Be at peace with the universe"). The most genuinely heartfelt response is in the laborious printing of a child: "Give the animals food and be kind."

The third installation, Jerry Burchfield's "Glass Houses: Confessions of an Ecological Hypocrite," seems to be mostly about one person's bumpy evolution from '60s-think to '90s-think. Viewer interaction is limited to passive looking and reading.

As a physical artifact, the piece is full of tired symbolism and didactic overkill: glass "houses" arranged, in the shape of a human figure, on a platform; different-colored chairs labeled with positive human qualities ("wisdom," "innocence," and so forth); and glass reliefs of the world's continents.

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