07 June 2010

Shanghai World Expo: Island Five, Bryn Oh's "no light"

You enter Island Five, Bryn Oh's "no light," at night. It's always night on Island Five. You stand on a long, solitary island. In front of you there's a simple entrance surrounded by rectangular frames of various dimensions, intersecting each other; some are filled with windows of the sort you see in long-abandoned factories. A similar structure stands at the other end of the island.  Beyond it, an aurora borealis shimmers. When you walk through the entrance, you are enveloped in glow, at the end of which you encounter a little girl looking up at the windows.

Farther on are a variety of objects. Although Island Five is "no light," there are lots of electrical lights. Three lightbulbs float toward the side, cupped in spherical shades, undulating like mechanoid jellyfish. Other lamps are also scattered about, some as globes, some as flowers, some perhaps as weeds. And, of course, there are also the Northern Lights. Other small works also populate the island, and a little outcropping nearby.

In the middle of the sim stands a Whisper Tree, very different from the ones on the first three islands, and clearly Bryn Oh's own making. But like the others, it includes the "whisper" anim. However, the tree is a good example of how one shouldn't assume that her individual pieces each hold only one secret. If you keep exploring it, you'll find a teleport to another location. You'll land in "Condos in Heaven."

In my commentary on Island Three, I pointed out that you can collect a painting of a scene from "Condos in Heaven" if you keep you eyes open, and I mentioned that I wanted to write about it sometime, little suspecting it would be so soon. Perhaps the Whisper Tree granted my own small wish.

The world of "Condos" is glaring white. Like being snowblind. Install the Windlight settings (in one of the pillars nearby) for the full Antarctic chill. This world is horizonless, directionless. Here, you can barely escape the light. Far away, three hulking buildings stand uninvitingly. You trudge toward them.

The narrative of  "Condos in Heaven" is that humans have found a way into Heaven. They battle the angels and ultimately win. They occupy Heaven, capture angels, and make them their commodities. Some are sold as pets. Some meet worser fates.

You first go to the building on the right. Outside it, an infant in a baby carriage. This is a shop. As the shopkeeper sits, mildly bored, a man and his young son consider the store's wares. They are angels' wings. To the right, some halos.

To the left, barely noticeable, is a doorway. You open it. Inside, two men are working. One uses a ragged saw to hack off an angel's wings. Soon those too will be on sale. You cannot tell if the angel is dead or still alive.

You leave for the second building, which turns out to be a museum of Bryn Oh. Several of her classic works, framed in alcoves. The Butterflycycle. A robot boy watching a television, inside which is a drawing of a boy watching a television. "26 Tines." Shopping carts. A skipping girlbot -- the same one we met on Island Three. Also seen on Island Three, the milkweed floaters. A pile of shopping carts surrounded by crows. In one alcove, there's "Willow": a small girlbot, locked in a small tower. In her hand floats a small globe of the Earth. She is about to touch it. You touch it, to see her story.

The boy, Willow, and the skipping girlbot are some of Bryn Oh's own angels, caged for us here. Somehow these museum pieces -- with their ultimately intersecting stories, captive in their museum frames -- are like the intersecting frames at the island's entrance. Of course, the latter have nothing to do with the former. Maybe.

At the back of the museum, a girl, accompanied by her dog, half-hides behind a window and peeks out. You peer out too. She sees a captive angel. It is kneeling. It is enchained.

You leave. You go to the last building -- a cross between a railroad engine and a factory. The doorway separates to let you in. You enter a long hallway. Like a hotel that has seen better days. Placards advertise body clones, a newspaper with only happy news, mood enhancing pills. Everything you need to whisk away your worries.

At the end of the hallway is a room, with a four-poster bed, a scrolltop desk, a steam powered grandfather clock, and a table. On the table is a newspaper where you can read about the humans' glorious victory over the angels. You learn that the wings and halos amputated from the angels can be transplanted onto you. It's the next fashion trend. The news continues.

That's only half of what's up here.

You head out of the building and make your way back to the two pillars that mark the entrance. There's a teleport. You take it. But it drops you in mid-air and you plummet, like an angel whose wings have been chopped off.

There is a painting by Paul Klee of an angel, renowned by Walter Benjamin's description of it.

A Klee painting named "Angelus Novus" shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.*

"Condos in Heaven" could stand as the story of what happens next, when progress catches up to the angel. There are no heights, I mean depths, that this pile of debris will not reach. There is nothing that this "progress" won't desecrate and put on sale.

You return to the island, "no light." There are paradoxes, ironies. "Condos in Heaven," glaring with light, is Bryn Oh's darkest work, and the most tough-minded. It's the only one I know of with an explicit social critique of our benighted world. On the island below, where it is always night, the darkness is airy and practically luminous. The Northern Lights lead your eyes to the heavens. The lightbulb jellyfish seem almost peaceful.

And as you return toward the entrance, you notice the little girl again. There is something remarkable here. She is shading her eyes from the sun streaming through the windows. She looks like she has paused. Like she is about to step forward, into and through the sunlight.

Perhaps she is leaving.

Shanghai World Expo: Island Five, Bryn Oh's "no light"

*Walter Benjamin, "Theses on the Philosophy of History," Illuminations, tr. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken, 1968), 257-58. Laurie Anderson used these words in the song "The Dream Before," on her album Strange Angels.

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