I Am a Red Comet

March 20, 2008

I’m pretty late to the Chinese rock party– I haven’t even seen Beijing Rocks!– but I like Hang on the Box well enough. Along with thirty or so other bands, they form the bulk of the Mark Harris exhibit at the Weston Gallery in Cincinnati.


Mostly documentary, “Utopian-Bands and Related Works” claims to look at rock’s communal impulse, comparing it to the same in, well, Communism.  Red China kitsch, like ji?n zh? paper cutouts of party propaganda, sit next to Harris’ own cutouts and woodblock prints of the bands in question.  He arranged a concert in China for them; an amateurish video short documents the show.

Based solely on the bands’ music and performances, the exhibit is enjoyable.  Though less arresting, the music reminds of other not-quite appropriations of American & English pop, as in Japan, Cambodia, and Ethiopia.  So the listening stations held my attention the longest, with over 30 CDs, from Carsick Cars to Top Floor Circus.  Perhaps punk arises from capitalism as naturally as from adolescence.

Harris’ art, and the concepts behind it, get lost.  His most interesting works so far are his paper cutouts, which successfully translate Abstract Expressionism into fragile layers of color.  His cutouts of the bands are fine, though not as arresting as Amie Dicke’s use of the same technique.  In the end, though, the documentary part overwhelms the artist’s part.  So the show should be judged as documentary, a form that has retreated from magazines and television into the gallery of late.  If its measure is whether I go back and listen to more music, then it succeeds.  If it is how Harris has played the doc form in concert the concerns of contemporary art, then I’ll just enjoy the music.

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