New York

Michael Joo

Though the title of Michael Joo’s installation, Salt Transfer Cycle, 1993–94, suggested a neat scientific diagram, the artist offered a complex, disjunctive work. Several videos, one of which was projected across the space, partly obstructed by aluminum poles, competed for attention. A scale model of a missile-shaped vehicle sat on the floor; rows of slaughterhouse meat trays and elk antlers lined the side walls. This calculated visual scatter reflected the deliberately contradictory impulses of Joo’s work.

Videos projected on the back wall traced the salt transfer itself: they showed Joo “swimming” through two-thousand pounds of powdered MSG, a salt substitute; in the next sequence the artist evolved from an aquatic organism to a four-legged creature to a man, as he crawled, stood, and then ran across the great Salt Flats in Utah. (A monitor below contrasted Joo’s movements with that of the Blue Flame, the vehicle mentioned above, which broke world land-speed records in trials on the Flats.) Finally, Joo appeared in a pastoral setting in Korea, wild elk licking the salt off his naked body.

The objects in the room wove a web of associations around the performances enacted on screen. Along one wall, the meat trays were inscribed with the words “potency,” “longevity,” “vigor,” and “desire” (the Koreans harvest antlers, grinding them into powder to be used in homeopathic medicines that they believe can instill these qualities); on the opposite wall the trays displayed the Latin names for the chemical breakdown of the elk-antler extracts. The irreconcilability of East and West was but one in a series of oppositions underlying the installation. Other works played on internal contradictions: MSG is a toxic substance, though salt is crucial to the body’s survival. Similarly, the “rationality” of the speed vehicle is undermined by its uselessness. Though Joo’s own physical exertions (and the danger he faced in approaching the elk) yield no “useful” end product—no information—they create a collection of haunting, if perplexing images.

Joo has often zoomed in on the insidious ideologies that underly gauging, measuring, and naming. In an earlier work called Slanty, the Angle of Indentification, 1992, Joo created a pie chart based on eye angles, demonstrating that there is no consistent difference between those of Asians and those of Westerners. In the current installation, naming also came under fire: does scientific nomenclature illuminate or obfuscate reality? This question is addressed in Joo’s own performances—in his scrambling of the “evidence” and in his presentation of seemingly disparate information and imagery in the closed quarters of the gallery space. He further complicated things by transferring the same information into various languages: raw materials, written words, sculptures that strain the limits of formal composition and provoke wayward metaphors, quasi-narrative video sequences that cycle back and repeat endlessly.

In collecting “unprocessed,” unassimilated elements, ripped out of the contexts that typically supply or reinforce their significance, Joo created a host of associations that ricocheted off each other. This transfer of meaning, like the salt transfer, takes energy, demands the viewer’s active engagement. Despite the many linear and circular elements in Salt Transfer Cycle, Joo offers no real lines or circles, no true continuity, merely a tangle of loose ends and seeming dead ends that if tipped off balance (like the aluminum rods) could prove toxic.

Lois Nesbitt