Madeline Wheeler on The Contemporary’s Bubble Over Green by Victoria Fu
When a contemporary art museum lauded for establishing “the art of right now” in Baltimore abruptly stops featuring exhibitions for almost three years, there is much pressure for the reopening to be awe-inspiring. Bubble Over Green, The Contemporary’s first solo commissioned show since it suspended operations in 2012, has garnered much attention since its February 23 opening. But does it deserve the buzz?
Founded in 1989 with the goal of redefining the classic museum setting, The Contemporary burst onto the Baltimore art scene as an outlet for experimental artwork that aimed to evoke communal creativity within the city. The art incubator aimed to redefine the “museum” setting, hosting shows in unconventional locations, which according to The Baltimore Sun included a strip-mall storefront, a vacant office building, and an abandoned city bus garage.
A decade later, the newly minted Contemporary Museum acquired a permanent space on West Centre Street in Baltimore’s Mount Vernon neighborhood, where it resided until 2011. In May 2012, in the midst of “The Baltimore Liste”, an exhibition highlighting local Baltimore talent, The Contemporary Museum unexpectedly shuttered its doors, suspending the show early before halting operations indefinitely. The organization made major changes in staffing, cited financial struggles in a terse statement and left Baltimoreans—who believed it was in the process of acquiring a new location—puzzled.
In 2013, The Contemporary announced its official re-launch, returning to its original name and mission. Until Bubble Over Green, the organization had hosted an ambitious, free yearlong speaker series and offered generous artists grants through the Grit Fund, but had yet to host a solo commissioned exhibit since its 2012 closure.
Bubble Over Green features five works—three video installations and two neon sculptures—by California artist Victoria Fu in the former Korean-American Grocers Association (KAGRO) building on North Avenue that had previously stood vacant.
The KAGRO building was selected for its unique design, as it is one of the few examples of Brutalist architecture that remain in Baltimore. With the help of C&H Restoration and Renovation, MICA, and several funders, The Contemporary was able to completely transform the interior—once partitioned into separate rooms with carpeting, broken windows, and failed heating—into a fluid, white space better suited for showcasing artwork.
In Fu’s Bubble Over Green, the artist explores the relationship between human sensory experience and technology, but is somewhat inconclusive in answering if the latter is beneficial or detrimental to the former. Fu contemplates the physical movements associated with touchscreen interactions—which she captures in a flickering neon sculpture aptly titled “Pinch-Zoom”—as well as the iconic computer ‘click’ mouse noise and visual elements associated with photo editing applications such as Photoshop’s gray and white checkered layer background featured in her video works.
Although Fu’s neon sculptures contribute a welcome shock of color to the space, her videos are the exhibit’s true focus. The room’s length consists of an expansive wall with a narrow rectangular overhang that runs from the celling down about five feet before meeting the white wall below. Fu designed her largest work, a three-channel video installation with sound titled “Velvet Peel”, to span the expanse of the overhang, leaving the white gallery wall below empty.
“Velvet Peel” is a non-narrative video that includes imagery of nature, varied forms of water, and body parts of female figures spliced with technological references. A jean-clad butt bounces in the right-hand corner as a series of photos of nature fly upwards as if they were a Mac screensaver. Two female torsos take a selfie against a backtrack of clicks and images of a Google Maps panning shot of the KAGRO building, while a vibrant green apple plunges into water. Throughout, Fu maintains a color palette of pastel blues, grays, and pinks with bright green accents.
While “Velvet Peel” is visually stimulating and aesthetically pleasing, the relationships it draws between technology and life are not always clear. The string that ties the work’s numerous themes—water, nature, sensory aspects of technology, the female body, bright green imagery—together is incomplete. The viewer is left wondering how separate pieces of overlaid footage—such as anonymous red-haired head and a lettuce leaf submerged in water—relate to one another.
It is interesting that the two actors in Fu’s video are visibly identifiable as women, despite the fact that only singular and—at times—non-gender specific bodily sections are shown. Yet it remains unclear what exact message Fu is attempting to make in regards to the interactions between women and technology through this choice of an all-female cast.
The artwork’s installation location requires seated viewers to crane their necks, and the gaping negative white wall space beneath the overhang became overwhelming, distracting from the artwork above.
On the other hand, the exhibit’s namesake video installation, played on a flat screen television in the back-most corner of the gallery, draws distinct parallels between technology, physical movement, and the artist’s hand. Fu superimposes footage of hands using traditional artistic materials—cutting with an X-Acto knife, painting from a tube, wiping surfaces—with different background and foreground layers that range from iridescent moving Screen Saver color fields to bubble wrap.
Here, Fu plays with the notions of layers, dimension, foreground, and background as they relate to both traditional artistic processes and those conducted through editing software like Photoshop. She succeeds in demonstrating how the artist’s means of manipulating materials has changed with the advent of modern technology, and how the artist’s hand’s presence on the work becomes invisible, supplanted by the computer mouse and cursor. Nonetheless, one is left wishing that like “Velvet Peel”, this installation were presented with the audio track of the sounds of rips, cuts, and fizz of the spray paint.
Although Fu’s work is pertinent to the pervasive nature of technology in our modern life, Bubble Over Green lacks the bold social commentary The Contemporary was once renowned for. The KAGRO building’s vast interior remains predominantly empty, the warmth of the glow of Fu’s neon and video works not enough to fully soften the building’s austere high ceilings, blank walls, and cement exterior. The space appears empty, and its hollow, open floor plan causes the audio track from “Velvet Peel” to obnoxiously interfere with the other video work.
While these screens fail to submerge the viewer in a new environment as Fu intends—the large video work is projected above eye-level forcing the viewer to notice the blank wall space below and the black plastic boundaries of flat screen emphasize the video’s separation from the wall itself—they do succeed in turning the viewer’s eyes towards the surrounding environment. Fu incorporates images and footage of textural elements of the KAGRO building’s interiors into her work, zooming in on textures of windows and wall patterns that the viewer would not appreciate otherwise.
The Google Maps photos of the KAGRO building and the surrounding neighborhood is reminiscent of the actions Fu may have taken after The Contemporary first told her about the building. The artwork doesn’t explore Baltimore past the confines of North Avenue or the KAGRO building, and there are no hints that the artist has a greater understanding or investment in the city.
Rather than dedicate an entire building to one West Coast artist, The Contemporary would have been better suited to showcase out-of-state talent alongside local works to attempt to make amends with the city it so suddenly disappeared from. The organization will need to prove that it is a vital aspect of the Baltimore arts community and one that is, at last, here to stay.
Bubble Over Green
The Contemporary at the former KAGRO Building
101 W North Avenue
Baltimore, MD 21201
Bubble Over Green is open through April 3, Wednesday through Sunday from 6 to 9PM.
Madeline Wheeler is a Baltimore-based writer from San Francisco enamored with ALLOVERSTREET and art documentaries. When she is not secluded to her apartment writing, she can be found dancing at The Crown or finding the latest pho place.