The first things I notice upon entering the Cooley Gallery are the balloons. There are about fifty of them clustered throughout the room, each one bearing a two-word phrase in stylized black script that stands out against the dark yellow rubber. I pick one up and peer at the lettering, which reads “Valiant Guardian.” Another is inscribed with the words “Urgent Fury.” Not until I find one labelled “Enduring Freedom” do I realize that each phrase is the name of a U.S. military operation carried out overseas. Near the back of the room, loud popping noises ring out as a television placed on the ground plays a video of a group of formally-dressed women puncturing yellow balloons. A glass case mounted at the side of the room displays a small vial of dark liquid; a card in the case informs viewers that the bottle contains “a new fragrance derived from ... materials described in the Book of Revelation.” On the wall opposite the door, an immense screen plays real-time webcam stills from locations as near as Idaho and as far as Thailand. The images from each place are organized into horizontal bars layered atop one another; the cumulative effect is of myriad landscapes seen simultaneously through the compound eye of an insect.
To the left, there’s an entire wall covered with printed-out tweets and Facebook status updates from ordinary Portlanders. Sample quotes from the wall include, “Crying in the bathroom with a grilled cheese in hand is a good lunch, right?” and “In Portland we take National Croissant Day to heart.” Tucked away behind this wall is another television with short snippets of dialogue—mostly questions and short, unspecific answers—played over footage of industrial scenes of shipbuilders, timber workers, and heavy machinery operators (among others) at work. I later learn that the combinations of sound and image are randomly chosen by a computer program. As I walk out from the exhibit, I glance over the supplemental material handed to me at the door of the gallery. It consists of two pamphlets, one of them a simple description of the artists’ goals, the other a reprint of a speculative essay from Voltaire’s Micromégas about a voyage to Saturn.
As the above summary probably makes clear, Thomson & Craighead’s The Academy of Saturn is a tremendously expansive work, a sprawling fantasia so abstract that pinning down an objective review of it is likely impossible; even the descriptions of the artists’ intentions leave a lot of interpretative room for the viewer. In all likelihood, many visitors to the gallery will praise The Academy of Saturn for its unconventional structure, while others will dismiss what they see as pretension. My own response falls somewhere in the middle. Beyond either adulation or criticism, I have to acknowledge the incredible ambition behind this work of art: in its various facets, the installation addresses American militarism, globalization, the surveillance state, social media, and international production under capitalism. It’s rare to see a single exhibit cover so much territory.
To its further credit, the individual pieces of The Academy of Saturn utilize their symbolism, design, and placement to extraordinary effect. Of particular note are the balloons—their air-filled cores perfectly represent the hollow meaninglessness of so many of America’s imperial expeditions, while their ponderous fall to the floor represents the tragic sacrifice of so many lives (soldiers and civilians) over the course of war. Meanwhile, the televised balloon popping, which the supplemental brochure informs me is from a corporate balloon drop, not only evokes the sound of gunfire but also pairs the violence symbolized by the balloons on the gallery floor with the culture of capitalism signified by the balloons on-screen. Similarly, the social media collage (titled “Portland Wall” in the brochure) serves as a remarkable map of Portland’s collective unconsciousness, while the webcam compilation (called “Horizon”) is both a celebration of an immense, connected world and an eerie portrayal of the sort of omnipresent surveillance that’s become de rigueur in modern times. I would, however, have liked to see more done to tie these components together. While I understand that each piece is intended to stand alone as its own work of art, the relative proximity between them blurs the lines dividing the installation into parts, and in that context, it’s unfortunate that The Academy of Saturn doesn’t do more to link, say, the apocalyptic imagery of the Revelation fragrance with the balloons’ commentary on war, or the culture of social media represented by “Portland Wall” with the webcams of “Horizon."
Still, this is an impressive exhibition, and one that I recommend viewing before April 26, when it leaves the Cooley Gallery. You may love it, or not, but you certainly don’t see something like this exhibit every day.
Cover photo courtesy of the Cooley Gallery.