New worlds collide in the Kemper's Ping-Pong Diplomacy.

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New worlds collide in the Kemper's Ping-Pong Diplomacy.

The title of the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art's immense two-person show — Ping-Pong Diplomacy — is the term used to describe the cultural exchange of pingpong players between the United States and China in the early 1970s. The exchange program, designed to strengthen the relationship between the two countries, even helped prompt a visit to China by then-President Richard Nixon (though it's uncertain whether he played any pingpong). The artists, Stephen Hendee of Las Vegas and Phoebe Washburn of New York, use that bit of history as a template for their complementary installations.

Both have built huge, site-specific structures that fill opposite sides of the main gallery.

Washburn's piece, "Everyone's a Giant," brings to mind a children's clubhouse whose builder has gone wild. It stands like a giant wave of wood, the movement of which flows in an oval around half the gallery. At its highest point, it stands 14-1/2 feet tall. Walk underneath and you're within the naked scaffolding, where plants and grass sprout in random spots beneath grow lights. You can hear the burbling white noise of the irrigation system.

Intriguingly, it feels as if the installation sits here simply because someone wanted it to. There's the odd sensation that the builder has just left the room, that you've caught the piece just as it reached completion.

The structure looks handmade because it was, built by volunteers, students and the artist herself. Their hours of intense labor are obvious. Washburn uses found lumber she has stockpiled for the past three years, so the wood varies in color and quality, adding character and charm. Screws hold the smaller wood pieces together, and each piece is added on top of another like roof shingles assembled in perpendicular fashion. (The piece can be taken down and put back together.)

Orange stickers were originally applied only to hide the screws that join the wood, but Washburn decided to continue the motif because she liked how they looked. It was a wise choice; they seem to grow out of the underbelly of the structure like funny flowers, straddling the line between the synthetic and the organic.

Several small doors are open at random. Looking through one door close to the floor, viewers can see inside to the wood supports. Nearby, two plastic windows afford a view of a work station — but whose? It might be yours or the artist's, but it doesn't matter, because Washburn isn't intent on establishing firm boundaries between artist and spectator. For her, it's all about the intermingling.

Whereas Washburn stresses natural elements, formed almost accidentally the way stones in a creek end up layered on top of one another, there's a sense of precision in Hendee's synthetic "Sorcerer." (The title comes from the tepid 1977 remake of the 1950s French film The Wages of Fear; Hendee was inspired by its theme of corporate disregard for human life.)

Composed almost entirely of corrugated plastic and gaffer's black tape, it's held together by a hidden metal frame.

Like Washburn, Hendee encourages viewers to walk through his created space. Soothing yellow, green, blue and orange lights glow mysteriously from behind the plastic walls. Subdued and quiet, the colors appear to shine through fogged glass or crystal. The lights produce vague shadows on other parts of the work; the effect is calming, and it evokes a wintry, cool mood. More spontaneous aspects appear in the way that the tape makes "drip" lines, stars, angles, and large and small geometric shapes.

It, too, is a labor-intensive piece. Students from the Kansas City Art Institute and neighboring universities helped with its construction, and, as in Washburn's piece, the hard work is evident. Hendee reportedly spent eight hours building just one complicated wall.

His piece and Washburn's overlap slightly in the center of the gallery, where the wall of one runs along the wall of the other. And there stands the main stage: the pingpong table of the show's title.

It is the focal point where a dialogue between the two artists symbolically takes place. (Hendee was kind enough to adapt one section of his work near the table to hold paddles and little orange balls.) The tension between the installations materializes in the net dividing the two halves of the table — but that net also represents the fused edges of the separate worlds that these artists have laboriously and lovingly created.

Go ahead. Play a game.


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