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Huong Ngo

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The Nest of All Possible Worlds: Huong Ngo
January – February 2008 – China Arts
By Bert Stabler

The appeal of “virtual reality” was supposedly the “virtual” part—after all, the unfathomable obstacles of everyday reality aren’t too hard to come by. But we are born into the idea of an immersive, alternate universe, fecund with bliss-yielding possibilities, free of commonplace consequence. Paradoxically, this border between imaginary and symbolic space, the foundation of childhood group play and communal religious faith, is exactly what is continually offered and denied to us in our over-mediated environment.  Disbelief cannot be suspended for long in a democracy of competing illusions.

Huong Ngo’s work offers a glimpse into shared fantasy, operating in numerous registers. Forsaking the alienating commercial and academic solipsism that turns so many art galleries into tombs of stale deja-vu, Ngo and her collaborators create temporary nests where viewers can wear fabric landscapes or vestigial water-wings, climb into unique Tyvek Hazmat pods, watch lighthearted corporate safety training videos, listen to recorded dreams in defunct phone booths, or peer into a fully-furnished inflatable studio sitting on the sidewalk.

Ngo’s latest installation, Kosmolet (Radio Receiver No. 1) at the cozy Chicago technology-art nook Deadtech, exemplifies her approach, combining de-virtualized technology and elegant modernist handicraft with poignant historical moments. The entire gallery has been transformed into a shortwave radio, with antenna wiring crisscrossing the space and coalescing on the wall into delicate rectilinear spirals around flower-like frequency tuners made from cardboard and aluminum foil. More foil on the floor helps ground the signal, which is gathered by Mylar helium balloons floating out the window and then focused by induction coils made from wire-wrapped cardboard tubes, eventually ending up as an intimate whisper into the conch-shell rumble of tin can speakers.

The installation is augmented by a black-and-white stop-motion animation that Ngo constructed from tiny mechanical parts that also double as miniature buildings. Inverting the transformation of the entire gallery space into an interactive appliance, the video features the elements of appliances converted into interactive architectural spaces.  Like little space colonies, the cityscapes proliferate in gumball-machine plastic bubbles across a table situated below the projection screen.

The Soviet techno-utopia ethos suggested by the Constructivist sci-fi aesthetic throughout the installation is explained by unpacking the title: the press release states that “Kosmolet is a celebastardization of the Russian word ‘Komsomolet,’ or ‘little comrade,’ the name given to crystal radiokits for little boys during the Stalinist era.” Far from revering totalitarianism, the sense of hope for a nurturing society in the early days of Lenin’s rule (and stop-motion cinema) makes sense with the modestly optimistic tone of Ngo’s work. She tames and rationalizes the nihilism of the avant-gardes, shushing the snide irony of Tom Friedman and the junk-shop intertextuality of Thomas Hirschorn.

 

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January 21, 2010 at 8:25 am