The seductive works of Yam Lau

Oftentimes, when confronted with art that is highly specific in its use of digital technology, there is a distancing, or an almost palpable space between the artwork and the viewer. This need not be a negative experience. If you happened to see Jennifer Steinkamp’s work in Ecotopia, recently at the College Gallery, it’s so artificial that it seems a world unto itself, inside the monitor. It was like an artificial environment, remote and untouchable, and very beautiful.

Yam Lau’s Inaugurations (Two Instances of Illuminations) at PAVED arts, however, seem to invite an intimacy with the viewer: this is despite the bare nature of the gallery and the antiseptic cleanliness of the installation. The larger projection, nearly wall sized, is not quite directly across from the smaller, white-boxed monitor. This mild misalignment allows you to engage with one work at a time, allowing you to interact with either “space” exclusively.

This is helpful, as both are scenes with voyeuristic overtones. The larger projection, on a loop, brings us to a scene of a young woman, seemingly unaware of our intrusive gaze. She seems upset, and her positioning – her back to us, but facing a mirror in her “room” – allows us to see her facial expressions while avoiding direct engagement with her. The sole audio in the space is rainfall, corresponding to the film of “rain” in the image, hinting that we’re outside, like someone who desperately needs to see this person, or this scene unfold, and will brave the elements. There’s no menace, no implication of stalking, in our looking. She sits, weeping, before rising to leave, seemingly no happier and just as oblivious to our gaze.

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This “ignorance” – not in a pejorative sense – of our presence is also occurring in the smaller work. The “boxing” of the monitor in a white structured frame is both effective in breaking that hideous “let’s put a television on a wall and pretend its art” laziness and quite lovely. It works in both a formalist manner of “hiding” the tech, but also in terms of continuing the “whiteness” of the space to privilege the scenes in the darkened gallery.

The smaller image rotates, featuring a transparent cube in an empty (gallery?) space, where a man and a woman seem to engage in private, domestic tasks, sometimes folding clothes, sometimes reading and undressing, as though we’re not even there. The scene is not entirely clear as to whether it’s a projection on the clear walls, or actual figures within it. The players don’t seem to interact with each other, and of course, don’t interact with us anymore than their singular counterpart in the other work. Which is really there, or if they’re ghosts or imaginings, from one to the other, is vague.

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I’m sure I could come to an appropriate, “factual” conclusion about this: but this would simply cramp the ethereal experience. I prefer to think that everyone is really “there”, the same way that I’m part of this scene, and my interaction with him or her is real, as well.

My suspicion regarding artist talks is well known, and I’d paraphrase someone whose cynicism makes me blush in commenting that artists should tell you what they ate while making the work, as everything else they say is just as (not) relevant. I’m not quite that dour: and Lau’s talk was one of the more engaged and enlightening in terms of his current work that I’ve seen. His past works have also played with notions of space, reflection, and the idea of seeing oneself and your environment in alternate ways. He joked that an earlier, almost dangerously fragile glasswork that incorporated the works of poet Paul Celan was his first projection, as it let light shine through it, to shadow Celan’s words on the wall.

Celan was a survivor of the concentration and death camps of World War II. His writings (specifically Todusfuge, or in English, Deathfugue) are both poignant and cutting, and like many camp survivors (Primo Levi, Jean Améry), he took his own life (I highly recommend, on a side note, the anthology Holocaust Poetry, edited by Hilda Schiff). There is an element of absence, and they hint at things lost and gone, in the works of Yam Lau: a presence and an absence, and the title of Inaugurations (Two Instances of Illumination) seems to suggest that brevity and intangible transience…