By now it’s a familiar irony that some of the most interesting art made in the past decade derives its style from the visual culture of the 1980s. Paper Rad, Cory Arcangel, PFFR and a flotilla of other experimenters, many with degrees from elite art schools, all take stylistic cues from early personal computers, the dawn of the Internet and, especially, video games. What lies behind this new orthodoxy of digital kitsch? Not nostalgia, exactly, as much as a kind of happy generational intimacy. Many people who grew up in the 1980s recall the same set of formative images, and that’s comforting; it makes childhood seem, retrospectively, less lonely.
C. Spencer Yeh, born in Taiwan in 1975, now based in Cincinnati and best known for his noise band Burning Star Core, hewed to the ’80s-inflected esthetic in “Standard Definition,” his first solo museum show. At its center was Buck and Judy (2009), an animated music video Yeh directed for the band Deerhoof that draws inspiration from the pixelated, candy-colored iconography of early Nintendo. Although Buck and Judy doesn’t have quite the visual intricacy of a production by Paper Rad, it shares the dream logic characteristic of that collective’s work. What sets Yeh’s video apart is the way it explicitly dramatizes childhood trauma. From Deerhoof’s suggestive lyrics (“Tasty, isn’t it? That fruit?”), Yeh elaborates a silly but irresistible narrative of lost innocence: little Buck and Judy move through an elaborate Mushroom Kingdom filled with floating oranges and bananas, which turn out to be weaponized. Before long, the children are swallowed by giant robotic creatures, who battle to the death and vomit out their prey. At the end of the video, Buck and Judy attack one another with a sword and a two-headed axe, respectively, concluding a parable about a spoiled Eden and the exploration of gender difference—in short, about adolescence. Yeh seems aware of the strangeness of popular imagery, the way playful entertainments can articulate universal anxieties.
As a musician, Yeh seems frustrated that auditory experiences are more abstract than visual ones, and thus more difficult to share. The three-channel video projection IMVIS: Infinite Modular Vocal Interaction System (Eliza Study No. 3), 2009, which throws images 6 feet high, and the video Baby Birds (2009) both feature too-close-for-comfort shots of Yeh’s face and vocal cords as he makes an impressive range of noises (Baby Birds was shot inside his mouth). It’s as if Yeh wanted to bring us as close as possible to his own physiological experience of sound production. Au Passage (2008) is simply a listening chamber for a recording of a live performance by Yeh and artist Amy Granat. At the CAC, the black-walled space was barely lit, emphasizing the absence of visual stimuli. It felt like an attempt to erase the distance between audience and performer. At the same time, Yeh altered the recording slightly, with subtle delay effects that would have been difficult to generate live. These manipulations serve as an acknowledgement that one can never really return to another moment, or inhabit another mind—not even by sharing memories of video games.
Photo: View of C. Spencer Yeh’s exhibition, showing (left and right walls) IMVIS (Eliza Study No. 3), and (back wall) Buck and Judy, both 2009, digital video; at the Contemporary Art Center.