Part art exhibition and part travelogue, "Flight Patterns" is a sprawling spectacle that takes visitors on a dizzying trip to more places than most frequent fliers travel in a lifetime. To visit the globe-trotting show at the Museum of Contemporary Art's Geffen Contemporary is to depart on an imaginative journey to some destinations commonly visited by tourists, like Griffith Park, downtown Seattle and Vienna.
More often, however, the thematically related works by the 21 artists and two collaborative groups, brought together by curator Cornelia H. Butler, invite viewers to travel, in their imaginations, to locales so far off the beaten path that you'd need a good guide (or a great map) to get there. Far-flung highlights include a small harbor on Nomi Island, British Columbia; a backyard in Port Dickson, Malaysia; the Arctic landscape around Igloolik, Northwest Territories; the countryside surrounding Wanganui, New Zealand; an industrial-strength information booth near Hinkley, Calif.; and the set of a campy movie in Sydney, Australia.
Like any adventure, your viewing of the show's 323 photographs, 130 projected slides, eight video installations, two 16-millimeter films, three photo-silkscreens, one sculpture and nine paintings wouldn't be complete without a few stopovers in places you wouldn't ordinarily visit. Some of the unglamorous locations depicted include clusters of housing units (made of converted shipping containers) for migrant workers in Mattawa, Wash.; run-down sweatshops in East L.A.; the barren land around the Papago Indian reservation near Tucson; and the seemingly endless fields of irrigated crops along the California-Arizona border.
This is a lot to take in on a single visit. (The videos alone run in excess of 4 1/2 hours.) But it isn't difficult to understand the show as a whole, which, despite the diversity of its subjects, is remarkably consistent in its willingness to treat works of art as sociological documents.
If your time is limited, go first to "The Desert People," a 47-minute road movie that David Lamelas shot in and around Los Angeles in 1974. Tucked away in the smallest, most sparsely appointed gallery in the museum, this strangely engaging 16-millimeter film is a terrifically condensed version of what's going on around you. Seeing it will guide you through the rest of the exhibition--and change the way you see it.
It doesn't matter when you start watching the looped movie, which intersperses scenes of five characters traveling along the freeway in a white Gran Torino with straight-into-the-camera monologues by each of them. Move your chair close to the screen and speakers: The audio of Lamelas' grainy film is not the best (and it doesn't help that sounds from another video often drown out the characters' lines).
Incredibly candid, they speak about the five weeks they just spent living with various families of Papago Indians. Their commentaries, in which cliches and insights intermingle, are at once glib and touching.
Viewers are never presented with any footage of the reservation. The only evidence of their visit is what the characters say about it. While such an oversight makes for incompetent sociology, it makes for powerful art.
The subject of Lamelas' casually sophisticated movie is not, after all, the Papago Indians. It is the multilayered story woven by its filmmaker and conveyed by its five characters, whose expressions and gestures speak volumes about their own backgrounds and values.
The rest of the works in the exhibition fall into two groups. Those in the first seek to record their subjects as honestly as possible. Those in the second prefer to move viewers by less straightforward means, lying, as it were, to tell truths that resonate more deeply than the facts themselves.
Both categories contain potent pieces and well-intentioned failures. Among the best works driven by the documentary impulse are Laurence Aberhart's intimate pictures of weathered monuments throughout New Zealand's countryside; Paul Outerbridge's color prints made on trips to Mexico; and Miles Coolidge's claustrophobic close-ups of the well-maintained shipping containers that are rented as Spartan apartments.
Among the least convincing pieces of realistic depiction are several that share an interest in portraiture, including Simon Leung's 131 pictures of himself squatting in front of Viennese buildings; Caryl Davis' enlarged snapshots of herself looking at landscapes (whose outlines she has sketched on her face); and Glen Wilson's impressionistic video-portrait of an African American laborer who lives in a small town in Arizona. None transforms the information it conveys into a story that is greater than the sum of its parts.