Japan’s Cruel Joke: American Idyll

August 28, 2008

I usually avoid karaoke’s chorus of horrors, especially outside east Asia, where we’ve rashly moved it from the private room into the bar, on the stage, before the beer-pickled hordes.  I’ve only ever worried about getting beaten up in such a place, when my friend Alice Mudd takes the mic and curdles the air.

However, in American Idyll, Cincinnati’s CAC has made karaoke a thing of joy.  Odd, that.  Many of the works caught my imagination, but Joel Armor’s Walt’s took over the museum.  Nothing, not the starchitect’s mailed-in chair designs upstairs or the mapworks down, could contain it.

Walt’s is an installation of a karaoke bar, with Sam Adams, Maker’s, and a bunch of people singing.  Being Cincinnati, lots of country drinking songs crowd out irony.  The joy of the thing– other than having a bar in a gallery, almost as great as a barnyard– comes from watching people disappear in performance.  Rather than comment on the art world, it saves karaoke from the bar.   I doubt I would give such attention to the performers elsewhere.

And some of them can really sing.  The night I was there, everyone seemed like they wandered in off the street, but the guy with the matching shirt-and-ballcap and the Parrothead both had pipes.  Armor and his art-partner both joined in, and served as magnanimous hosts.  In one sense, it was the ideal bar, a place you go to feel welcomed.  In another, it was human faces and voices lost in a certain, quite private, moment, transfigured on stage.

Walt’s has its last night on Monday, September 1st, next week.  It’s free, 6-9, I believe. Bring some friends.  (And if the music’s too much, you can hide downstairs by Qin Ga’s dual-screen work from The Long March.  Tucked away from the sound, the sight of the artist drawing a line across a snowy mountaintop with his naked body after getting all of China tattooed on his back might take your mind off the songs.)

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