The movie magicians who conjured The Wizard of Oz knew exactly the message they were sending to the future: Dorothy's Kansan reality is a dreary black and white, but her Oz fantasy -- somewhere over the rainbow -- is revealed in sumptuous Technicolor.
We are now, in fact, so accustomed to suspension of disbelief -- indoctrinated from birth by cartoons, sitcoms, advertisements and network news -- that suspension is automatic, triggered by a hypnotic, flickering rectangle of light.
Yet it's hard to distinguish the perpetrators from the victims. After all, the industry drones who spin fantasies were themselves created by fantasies -- and they liked it. Even the "average viewer," when made aware of the media's ability to manipulate, distort and prejudice (and who isn't by now aware?) will choose to be manipulated. Every day. Because sorting fact from fiction is hard work. We prefer entertainment, edited versions of life, quicker stereotypes, sharper delineation between black and white, grossly oversimplified opinions proffered by grossly overinflated media personalities.
Screen Gems, a skillfully and beautifully layered exhibition of multimedia artworks by Bruce Yonemoto at the Kemper, explores the role of illusion in our lives but also, especially, our role in illusion. Using a variety of projection and display techniques, the artist approaches his subject matter from several different angles: post-World War II Hollywood movies and television advertisements, surrealist and modernist paintings and even the human body. Contained in each are references to specific illusions: time, ethnicity, geographic and psychological boundaries. The viewer stands at the intersection of art and meaning.
The Time Machine series (referencing George Pal's film adaptation of H.G. Wells' novel of the same title) explores the illusion of time, exacerbated by our inability to determine a satisfactory and absolute definition of time. Our perception of minutes, hours, days and years is skewed by countless variables, one being the condensation of life in film. "The Time Machine Clock" installation projects onto the face of a functioning clock the image of a flower folding and unfolding. Filmed through time-lapse photography and in nostalgic black and white, the flower's impossibly quick blooming and unblooming is in marked contrast to the clock's moving hands -- what we erroneously think of as "real time." Because the projector is visible (a tiny machine that makes the sound of a ticking clock), we know the flower is illusory. And because the flower's movements are transposed onto the clock's, we can deduce that time is also illusory.
Yonemoto's use of projection devices and screens in nearly all of his works begs the viewer to consider both the falseness of the images and the falseness of his or her own projections upon them: Illusions of racial divisions, geographic boundaries and the tidiness of time exist only because we allow them to. "Environmental," an extraordinary installation created with the artist's brother, Norman Yonemoto, uses seventeen home-projection screens of various shapes and sizes overlapping to form one large surface -- upon which they project old Hollywood film clips of anti-Japanese war movies. We become so enraptured by the illusion of the motion pictures that we edit from our vision the otherwise obtrusive black borders of the screens, the gaps between them, their fragile tripods and the irregular outline created by the mélange. We see only what we want to see and, as a consequence, are shown only what we want to see, as well. The problem is, our own selective blindness allows just enough room for advertisers and political propagandists to slip in the sort of insidious messages contained in television commercials like those shown on the vintage television set facing the projection screens.
"La Vie Secréte (After Magritte)" is a chromogenic print inside a gilded frame that refers to a painting by Rene Magritte, a surrealist painter known for his optical illusions. In Yonemoto's version, the viewer stares at the back of Yonemoto's torso and head, which in turn stares at the back of his torso and head reflected in a gilt-framed mirror. The scale change between artist and reflection mimics the scale change the viewer experiences standing in front of the print. The implication is that we, the viewers, are Yonemoto, and if we cannot see the backs of our heads, then how can we refute it?
But we can see the backs of our heads -- at least in the nearby work, "La Vie Secréte." Whatever illusion a person succumbed to in her previous "secret life" is shattered by her ability to stick her head through a hole in a projection screen and see on a small screen the back of her head sticking through a hole in a projection screen, but upside down. Obviously, even this is illusion, for it is all just electrical current and light -- a more contemporary version of the mirror. Further, because this piece was created four years before the Magritte homage (and before another chromogenic print, "La Vie Secréte (Moi)," that depicts Yonemoto looking through the same projection screen), meaning resides in the shattering of visual illusions. Yonemoto is our Toto, pulling back the curtain to reveal our gullibility. But only if we choose to look.
It's disappointing -- but not surprising -- to see viewers spend so little time contemplating the work. This is not an exhibition one can walk through and immediately comprehend. Not only do pieces refer to each other, but because some are time-based, important clues to their interpretation dwell in accumulated visual information. Such laziness is why we are so frequently and deeply fooled by illusion. Or why we choose to be fooled by it.