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“Luxor v1.0: An Interactive Installation by Y. David Chung, Matt Dibble, and Renée Stout”

Artists and art lovers will take heart from “Luxor v1.0,” the multimedia collaborative installation at the Corcoran’s Gallery One, because it demonstrates how much we need artists to make sense of the 20th-century’s visual and informational chaos. Spectacle, physical and visual presence, and artistic intelligence are at work in the installation, a joint creation of Y. David Chung, Matt Dibble, and Renée Stout that is one of the most provocative and visually stunning exhibitions I’ve seen in Washington in a long time.

All three of the artists have distinctive personal styles and are well-known to the Washington art audience. The artists’ individual visions interpenetrate in the course of the installation’s investigation into the nature and consequences of the media’s influence, yet each remains identifiable. In the confrontation of the century, Dibble has created a glowing wall of “found” video imagery that faces an 18-foot African-inspired Minkisi totem by Stout. Surrounding the statue are Chung’s three media-inspired “Luxorviews” (which capture the destabilization of personal identity in a film-, advertising-, and television-saturated environment) and five of Stout’s smaller sculptures (which present incisive and bitter critiques of the mediated world). In this configuration, there’s the satisfying balance of theory, tone, and scale, rich symbolic and narrative layering, and formal satisfaction that makes for truly significant art.

“Luxor v1.0” resulted from Corcoran photography and media arts curator Philip Brookman’s invitation to Stout and Chung to collaborate on an installation exploring the effects of the media on cultural identity. Dibble, a video artist and producer, was soon brought in to provide the necessary media imagery and technology. Of the three, Stout’s work most explicitly responds to Brookman’s original impulse, investigating the social consequences of the distortions and simplistic stereotyping typical of contemporary culture. Formally and thematically integrated, her works expose the narcissism and racism embedded in the assumptions of mass society.

There’s an air of menace throughout the show, but with the exception of Stout’s work, it’s a generalized reconstruction of mechanized imagery rather than one focused on the effects of popular culture on individual ethnic and racial groups. Certainly Stout’s sculptures lend themselves to universal as well as African-American interpretations. The show explores and represents the way that media culture has insinuated itself into the national and international subconscious: through motion, color, monumentality, making familiar the exotic and exoticizing the familiar, shifting context and scale, and glamorizing images of conflict. The installation even includes the ultimate gimmick—an “interactive” console—that gives viewers the illusion that they can actually participate in constructing this imaginary world.

Dibble’s Novus Ordo Seclorum MCMXCIV “New Order of the Ages” defines the mechanized-image world that causes all this consternation. Filling the entire width and height of one gallery wall, it is a mosaic both moved and moving, composed of 256 separate video loops that have been digitally edited together to form a single, visually intelligible “picture.” In the center of its video landscape stands an enormous red pyramid in whose peak is embedded a human eye—extending the landscape reference are solar and lunar shapes in the dark area at the top of the image. Made up of numerous changing video images, as is the “ground” area filling the bottom half of the wall, these celestial forms contain “found” film expressing their identity—for example, footage of a lunar landing on the left, footage of a solar eclipse on the right. Aside from these shapes, the work is an iconographer’s nightmare, absolutely confounding the mind’s compulsion to find an explanation for each individual image’s inclusion.

Now keep in mind that all of these 256 rectangles are rotating at seven-second intervals so that the whole wall is literally vibrating with color and light. Also on a loop are flame shapes that rise up like wings at both sides of the pyramid’s peak and give the form an even more figural presence. Dibble says the work examines “the evil twin” of video art—that is, the imagery of commercial broadcast TV, from which all his loops have been taken. There is certainly something smug and soulless—and at the same time mesmerizingly seductive—in the huge red pyramid that was borrowed, like the work’s title, from the seal on a one-dollar bill. Thus commerce and entertainment merge in an illusion of significance and beauty.

The connection of the virtual world to “reality” is made at a small console placed at the gallery’s entrance. There, visitors may alter the wall-image by interrupting a series of infrared beams with their hands to produce breakdowns of the rectangle’s quadrants. Repeated disturbances of the beam gradually assemble the quadrants, and then flip the image back to the whole scene. This is interactive up to a point; viewers have only the options programmed into the system. The breakdown is sufficiently detailed, however, to allow for analysis of each of the 256 loops.

Though its technology is compelling and impressive, the ultimate secret of the work’s magic is not digital computers, but paste. Dibble designed the image using small drawings and printouts of each loop that he glued together to form a collage that provided the structure for the digitizing process. Thus the work is rooted in the artist’s hands and in the old-fashioned compositional problems of aesthetic satisfaction. I suspect it is for that reason that the “evil twin” establishes such an effective dialogue with the Minkisi giant across the room from whose left eye the whole illusion is projected.

Chung’s three “Luxorview” murals, which surround the totem and Stout’s smaller constructions in the gallery’s second room, combine archaeological and entertainment culture references in a complex vision of conflict and destruction. The three perspectives—of dawn, midday, and dusk—refer to ancient history, contemporary experience, and a science-fiction-inspired future. There is no sense of progress here, however, just the constantly shifting visual dynamism of a one-dimensional image-world. Chung says he is exploring the way history now blends and becomes identical with popular entertainment’s interpretations of it, and how cinematic images “keep invading thought.”

All the “Luxorviews” are set on rooftops where flying creatures and machines crash and collide amid the wreckage of modern civilization—billboards, signs, and buildings in various stages of dissolution. The figures are likewise presented one-dimensionally. Convincingly illusionistic when seen from the front, many are positioned so that their uninflected backs and the props that hold them in place are visible. Although these are drawings, all the visual activity takes place in a shallow illusionistic space just behind the picture plane so that the traditional fine-art medium replicates the airlessness of video’s virtual space. Chung’s vigorous and complex drawing style is perfectly suited to reproducing the dizzying unintelligibility of the modern urban environment, to which he adds a media-generated menagerie.

The ultimate drama of the installation comes from the juxtaposition of Dibble and Chung’s mediated and dematerialized imagery and the ferocious actual presence of Stout’s huge sculpture (and, to a lesser extent, the smaller sculptures and tableaux attending it). The large statue functions as a summation of all “real” history and the classic artistic creations of all societies before they were forced by colonialism or modernism into self-consciousness, self-criticism, and self-doubt. It holds its own against the “new order of the ages,” not only because the Minkisi is real and the “new order” is illusion, but because it embodies—literally—a fuller range of human experience.

Some of that experience is not always pleasant, but trying to veneer the unpleasant with the vapid, feel-good beauty invoked in the “new order” video world pushes the unwanted to psychological and social margins with devastating consequences. Stout makes this very clear in smaller works such as Bluest Eye, Well-Oiled Machine (Evil Eye), which contains the phrase “Everyone want big screen TV. No one see big picture,” and most dramatically Point of View, in which an image of an African-American man with a gun is marked, “If you convince me I’m ugly, I may act ugly.” This is the most “political” work Stout has exhibited so far—and the strongest.

But, as the exhibition makes clear, all imagery is political because it has such a capacity to influence identity and behavior and to determine the configurations of knowledge. Such insights are becoming truisms of cultural analysis as society braces for the invasion of the information superhighway and the 500-channel television. But the truisms become experiential in “Luxor v1.0” where both the compulsive and the intellectual pleasures of infotainment mingle with the banality, distortion, and cruelty it perpetuates. This is not an optimistic exhibition, but an attractive and engaging one that is a fairly exact reflection of the media and identity issues it so comprehensively exposes.