Williams senior art major Sung Kim’s video/performance “Turn On” oozed with drama, intrigue and some good-old-fashioned philosophical pondering to boot.
The drama and intrigue began as soon as I stepped into the lobby of the Spencer Art building – I noticed a few odd things about this place that was usually familiar to me. The entrance area was conspicuously dark and the doors to the Wilde Gallery were closed, blocked by a chair. The gallery windows were blacked out with dark paper. The artist was nowhere to be seen and his friends kept telling the people mulling around the wine and crackers (of undeniable artistic value) to keep quiet. I overheard a hushed conversation:
Q: “Is this just a video or is it being performed live?”
A: (someone clearly in the know): “You’ll see.”
My curiosity piqued, I nibbled on some chips (as quietly as I could so as to avoid the scorn of Sung’s imperious friends) for a few minutes. Soon enough, the “in the know” girl peeked into the gallery and, whispering, she ushered the six or so early birds in.
Now, all of this anticipatory “drama” may seem a bit unimportant to the piece – it might have been a mere byproduct of the logistical needs of setup and privacy of the performers – but it was certainly important in framing the experience of entering the room. Before I had edged my little toes inside the gallery, I was already at full mental alertness, and already felt as if I were sneaking into some secret place.
The gallery was totally dark except for the bluish TV glow bouncing off the back wall in front of us. As I walked – no, tiptoed – forward, my eyes adjusted and I could make out the shape of a bed in the middle of the floor with two figures lying on it. Two television monitors faced the back wall. I couldn’t tell at first whether they were living, breathing people or just dressed-up manikins. Upon closer inspection, I recognized not only that the bodies were real, but that they belonged to the artist and a co-performer, Ravi Purushotham ’00. They were fully dressed in everyday apparel (minus shoes and overshirts, which were tossed next to the bed), and seemingly sleeping like babies. The first question that came to mind was: Were they really cutting Z’s or were they just faking the funk?
As it turns out, it was a little from column A and a little from column B. Anyone who didn’t immediately buy that these two were really sleeping was soon convinced by Ravi’s audible snoring and spastic twitches. Yet strewn around the bed were an empty wine bottle, two mostly empty cups and a vial of suspicious looking prescription medication. A medicated sleep, the apparent explanation.
Regardless of the cause, the result was clear – and fascinating. A gorgeous tension grew in the audience. On one hand, the viewers could not help but feel they were violating Sung and Ravi’s personal (bedroom) space, while on the other they were excited by the opportunity to sneak a peak into this private space. I found myself (and observed others) taking advantage of their total public exposure: closely monitoring their facial expressions, scrutinizing their bodies and clothes, and wondering what was going on inside their heads.
This sort of “anti-performance,” if you will, where the performer is neither active (except for sleepy tics and wheezes) nor even conscious, reminded me of a work of stand-up comedy – Andy Kaufman’s legendary bit where he said nothing, pulled out a sleeping bag and took a nap for 20 minutes on stage. He totally surprised the audience, who supposedly laughed almost constantly, expecting him to get up at any second. A similar anticipation trick was working in “Turn On.” I felt like at any second they would spring up from the bed and shout “Whazzup!” But they didn’t move or suggest any consciousness, not for an hour and a half.
Not that viewers were expected to observe for that long – the video looped every 13 minutes. Two monitors, one above each performer’s head, consisted of tight close-ups of either Sung’s or Ravi’s faces, framing their eyes, noses and (sometimes) mouths. They were staring into the camera and, occasionally, talking quietly; the words could barely be made out. The speech was so subdued that viewers, myself included, found themselves crawling closer and closer to the monitors – which (significantly) also meant increasingly invading the sanctity of the sleeping performers. I managed to piece together that the faces in the video were attempting to describe the other performer from memory: their facial features, hair, etc. Initially, Sung’s (video) face was depicted over Sung’s (sleeping) head and Ravi’s (video) face over his (sleeping) head. About halfway through the loop, however, the faces overlapped and switched places entirely.
Enter the “good-old-fashioned philosophical pondering.” The somewhat cryptic footage and role-switching editing recalls works from the birth of video and performance art in the ’70s, which often examined how we look at and interact with one another. Sung’s video seems to question the permanence and ownership of thoughts and perceptions – what was once Ravi’s perception of Sung becomes Sung’s perception of Sung when the video roles switch.
I found the most engaging aspect of the work to be the tension found in watching the performers sleep – which isn’t to say the video wasn’t valuable. Without the video, I doubt the audience would have felt comfortable enough to get so close to the sleepers (while trying to hear the speech) and they might not have stayed so long in the private space. In this respect the video is somewhat limited to the role of a tactical diversion, despite its own conceptual strength. Perhaps, in a different context, the video could serve as a centerpiece of its own.
That’s my only criticism, and I don’t mean to say that it didn’t work as it was. At the end of the piece, “Turn On” had made me tense, nervous, excited, pensive and tuned in to my own thoughts and perceptions. That’s a lot to accomplish. Hopefully we’ll see more from Sung before he graduates. Keep an eye out; it will be worth your time.