SALT LAKE CITY — In the realm of postmodern art fare, video art can be conceptually difficult to comprehend. At once keenly familiar in a world replete with television and film, it is perhaps this association that renders experimental works theoretically challenging, not simply for the art novice.
In a recent exhibition at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Arts (UMOCA) entitled Who’s Coming to Save You, San Francisco-based artist Christy Chan defies the obtuse associations that can sometimes accompany video art to craft a richly compelling examination of both the horror and the banality of American racism.
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The exhibition, placed in UMOCA’s Codec Gallery, features two video works projected on separate walls. The first, “The Long-Distance Call” (2012), depicts a performance that recreates Chan’s experience ordering a Ku Klux Klan robe. It features two figures in a sparse setting, separated by a makeshift theatrical wooden divide. Chan, on one half of the divide, calls an Alabama-based robe manufacturer on the other. This manufacturer, “Ms. Anne,” at first responds briskly and dismissively to Chan’s robe request for a local theater production, perhaps suspicious of a California buyer aiming to purchase from a vendor in the Deep South.
Slowly, a familiarity develops between the two as Chan patiently navigates a series of delays and misunderstandings, including shipping methods and packaging damage. Here, Chan employs narrative to elicit a potent message — that racism, like any corrosive societal force, requires the prosaic acts of ordinary foot soldiers. The work, originally performed in 2012, skillfully places ordinary interactions as a conduit to understanding the systemic nature of biases, ones we often miss by focusing on newsworthy episodes of racist violence and aggression alone.
The second video piece, “As Seen on TV” (2014), which plays at the conclusion of the first, is a satire of David Hasselhoff in the 1982 television series Knight Rider. Replacing Hasselhoff in the synth-driven, ’80s action nostalgia clip is a figure dressed in a Klan robe. The show’s title recalls Klan nomenclature and ties conceptually with Chan’s conversation in the other video work. Particularly compelling here is the timed loop, with “As Seen on TV” bursting onto the screen after the slower-paced conversational work that precedes it.
Both works inject humor to elicit a visceral response, albeit in distinct ways. While the first work utilizes a situational comedy-style narrative to convey the foibles of racist laborers and their craft, the second leaves us with a distinct unease about the White-centered messaging of popular entertainment, and the power of words to describe our heroic figures.
When Chan made these works, some people may have questioned why, in the glowing post-race idealism of the Obama era (who in 2012 would have been about to enter his second term), the artist would focus so heavily on race. UMOCA considered this fact keenly, recognizing and recontextualizing the works for a post-2016 audience. The works seem to eerily foreshadow the world we live in today. And yet, while few would balk at the relevance of similar projects debuting for the first time in 2022, their existence speaks not to timeliness per se, but to a more tragic reality underpinning the perpetual nature of American bigotry.
Christy Chan: Who’s Coming to Save You? continues at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Arts (20 S. West Temple, Salt Lake City, Utah) through January 14, 2023. The exhibition was organized by the museum.