Los Angeles

Jen Liu

Lizabeth Oliveria Gallery

Jen Liu’s Soldiers of Light, 2005, is a head-on, single-shot video projection of eleven young, ethnically diverse men and women, varied in their personal grooming from beards and ponytails to shaved heads and in style from casual and baggy to tight and tailored. All wear white and either hop up and down or jog in place (one can’t tell which since the troupe is revealed only from waist up) to a sound track of footsteps and droning music in front of a backdrop depicting a spiral galaxy. Presented in the gallery’s side room and looping with an obvious jerk every three minutes, the apparently low-budget production leaves one wishing that the seam between the segments were less visible and the footage itself were long enough to seem repetitive but not repeated. But such desire originates in the wish to see the work become the weirdly unspecific propaganda film it seemingly aspires to be. Its failure as such, however, is what makes the projection simultaneously endearing and disturbing.

Adding to Soldiers of Light’s oddly compelling ineptitude, the actors, seemingly undertrained or underdirected, appear variously tired, confused, along for the ride, overly enthusiastic, spaced out, camera shy, or obsequiously (even masochistically) eager to please. The work is a subtle light/dark comedy of individualism pitted against groupthink and scripted order, and it’s difficult to know how to take it—graduation day at the ashram or the first day at a boot camp of the future, the rebellion’s next promising crop of ragtags or the Empire’s stormtrooper rejects. The whole thing is made stranger still by another low-tech glitch. A halo of pixelization surrounds the edges of this youth brigade—perhaps the result of shooting with a blue screen, or with cheap gear—causing the bobbing heads to disintegrate slightly into the backdrop, as if mind-melding with the cosmos. Whether deliberately or not, Liu has succeeded in producing a curiously flawed product—a terrific little open-ended satire.

The same could be said for the cartoonish ink-and-watercolor fantasy drawings that Liu presented in the gallery’s larger room. Composed to mimic the symmetry of Rorschach blots and the cascades of Eastern landscape scrolls, these depict a world populated by corpses, tiny figures, and the walking wounded. Also present are giant black orbs from which muted rainbows flow like hand-cranked spaghetti, punctuated with signs and billboards. Some of these are blank; others bear slogans like DOING MY DUTY—READY TO DIE! or I DESERVE TO REST IN PEACE. All of this is supposed to depict a myth of Liu’s own invention, something about a population explosion inadvertently resulting from attempts by alien space blobs to resurrect Earth’s dead soldiers by unleashing an immortality serum that civilians begin using recreationally. This mess of intentions might have helped bring Liu’s project into being, but I care less to read her show against dystopian daydreams than to enjoy its insinuations regarding the self-righteous personalities appointed to positions of influence on a daily basis. Liu manages to pull off something timely, and perhaps timeless.

Christopher Miles