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Sense of mysticism and sense of balance

June 18, 2004|Holly Myers | Special to the Times

Encountering the work of Brazilian artist Tunga feels something like stumbling into the laboratory of a shaman. The forms are organic but esoteric, the tone portentous but largely inscrutable. There's clearly a logic at play -- a code to the various configurations -- but it's elusive, seeming equally primal and philosophical, rustic and sleek.

It's difficult, in other words, to get your head around the work. But it speaks beguilingly to the body, with an almost unnervingly sophisticated command of shape, color and texture.

That's how it is with "Elective Affinities," a new installation now at Christopher Grimes Gallery. A massive contraption stretching to all four corners of the space, the piece resembles the site of some ritual transaction, enveloping viewers with an air of mystical significance.

At the center is what looks like a large steel door frame, from which are suspended about half a dozen intersecting cane-like rods, all 25 feet in length. Heavy wool blankets envelop this portal, protecting a mysterious pile of talc powder. Sheer gray curtains hang from rods, dividing the space into quadrants.

Chained to the end of each partition, resting on the ground, is a boulder-like sphere of polished aluminum studded with large aluminum teeth and gaping holes where other teeth might have been. Additional teeth hang from the rods at various intervals and are scattered about the floor, amid several loose blankets and chains.

During an opening performance, two mostly nude and exceptionally lithe young women moved silently about the installation, fondling the objects and digging through the talc. Their footprints remain visible here and there, and a trace of their presence lingers in a video of the event, which is projected onto one of the four curtains.

In an interview that's included on the gallery's DVD version of the performance, Tunga discusses the tooth as a universal form of sculpture, produced by the body, then expelled and miraculously regenerated -- a process he compares to casting.

The proliferation of the motif throughout the installation thus suggests a sort of compulsive fetish -- a desire to tap into the thrill and horror of that original loss and to somehow harness its power, as a shaman might harness the power of a fallen animal.

A closer look at the teeth still embedded in the boulder-like objects reveals a curious detail: In two, the roots sink downward, as they would in the mouth, but in the others they point outward, as if surrendered by their owners to a particularly sticky lump of candy.

The disparity suggests an interplay of fundamentally opposing qualities -- male and female, expulsion and absorption, productivity and receptivity. It implies a sort of cosmological balance.

Christopher Grimes Gallery, 916 Colorado Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 587-3373, through July 3. Closed Sunday and Monday.


Virtual reality in a world of dangers

Train wrecks, terrorist attacks, car accidents, robberies, fires, earthquakes, riots, hostage crises, plane crashes, toxic waste spills -- images of disaster seem to paper the walls of contemporary life, flooding the media and burrowing deep in the imagination of the American public. Individually ill-equipped to counter such a multitude of threats, we tend to pour our faith into another image -- that of the firefighter, police officer, military regiment or other first-responder, professionally trained to maneuver and mitigate dangerous terrain.

A fascinating exhibition now at the Center for Land Use Interpretation examines the nature of this training through a photographic tour of what it calls "the expanding landscape of preparedness." The pictures show facilities like the Los Angeles Police Department's Edward M. Davis Training Center, the San Bernardino County Sheriff Department's Emergency Vehicle Operations Center, the California Office of Emergency Services' Specialized Training Institute and seven others scattered across the Southland.

Presented in a series of digital slide shows, one site per computer screen, these images lead viewers through a space that is rarely glimpsed by the outside world, yet is devoted almost entirely to its simulation.

There are mock neighborhoods, mock highways, mock restaurants and drug labs; collapsed building props, bus accident props and props intended to provide the experience of a confined space. The degree of realism fluctuates wildly, with weirdly specific details--a Help Wanted sign in a fast food restaurant or a pair of golf clubs in an escrow office -- floating inexplicably alongside the broadly generic.

Taken by an assortment of individuals affiliated with the center, the images are consistently compelling. They strike a delicate balance between factual documentation and visual appeal and steer commendably clear of irony.

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