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Pecha Kucha

Parsing the 400-second chitchat

By Josh Rosenblatt, Fri., June 6, 2008

Fifty or 60 of us are packed into the foyer of the One Congress Plaza office building on a balmy Wednesday evening for Pecha Kucha, where local architects, designers, painters, and filmmakers are handed a slide projector and a microphone and told to show 20 images related to their work, each slide for 20 seconds, and talk about whatever they want, or don't talk at all – it's fine. ("Pecha Kucha" is Japanese for "chitchat," so maybe they should say something.) On a small stage sits a large screen with "20x20" in large colored letters shouting to the evening's presenters like a commandment: "Thou shalt not tarry." You have 400 seconds to capture your career and aesthetic philosophy. (May we advise speaking as fast as possible?)

Liliana Wilson left her homeland in Chile after the military coup of 1973. Her paintings and drawings are colorful symbolist portraits of loss, identity, land ... and ducks. Twins are everywhere, as are bodies carved in two, representing the split cultural personality of the immigrant. A broken crown in one piece, Wilson explains, captures "the moment the world hurts people." And I wonder: What is the point of symbolist art if every symbol is unpacked for you? Which makes me wonder about Pecha Kucha: Are works of art really supposed to be explained like this?

Wura-Natasha Ogunji, an artist who sews thread into translucent paper, ignores the mandate to chitchat and leads the audience through a series of 20-second poses, saying she's going to sew her next piece using us as her thread. The thought of audience participation puts me in a vanishing mood. First they kneel then they hold up one hand and stand on their tiptoes and they're spinning and spinning and spinning and they're making goggles with their thumbs and forefingers and they're hopping from left foot to right foot and the room is silent and they're taking it seriously and I can't believe what I'm seeing and why aren't they laughing? Then they make like they're about to dive into a pool, and Ogunji is putting on faux dreadlocks, and the point is proven that 400 seconds can last an eternity.

Designer Mark Macek talks passionately about furniture, dimensions, processes, and geometry: this type of wood and that type of metal, cut to this length and bent like so. And I'm starting to resent Pecha Kucha. Slicing and dicing art into categories of intentions and materials and contexts and philosophies reduces it to mere parts. Isn't the beauty of art that it's essentially alchemical, the domain of black magicians spinning paint or clay or wood or strings into something cloaked in mystery? Who wants to dash that impression?

Then Andy Coolquitt swoops in to save the day. The artist, social critic, and found-object connoisseur presents his satirical take on an ad campaign by upscale home-furnishing boutique Design Within Reach, substituting photographs of a shanty town for its modernist, prefabricated tableaus. "Be Well Mattress" says one slogan next to a cardboard box unfolded on the ground near a mound of stones. A log and a shoddy box huddled around a makeshift fire pit lie under the heading "Expand Your Guestlist." And now I remember passing the Design Within Reach store on the way here and noting the Harry Bertoia quote on the window – "The urge for good design is the same as the urge to go on living" – and thinking: "Does the lack of the first urge imply the lack of the second? Should I top myself because I don't want a $12,000 leather egg chair?" And now Coolquitt – God bless him! – is skewering this philosophy that what we buy defines who we are and that an artistic life is only a credit-card slide away. And that name says it all, really: Design Within Reach. You're so close! Just keep trying! Happiness ... can ... still ... be ... yours!

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