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Roger, Tower

The tower in Sam Van Aken's installation refers to Orson Welles' 1939 War of the Worlds radio broadcast. (photos by Biff Henrich)

Sam Van Aken’s radio play and installation @ Hallwalls

Sam Van Aken’s exhibit currently at Hallwalls takes on the straw man of art as hoax, art as deceptive.

The prominent main item of the exhibit is a toppled iron tower of the sort that a hundred years or so ago would have been used as the support structure of a rural windmill water pump. Or equipped with a barrel, a water supply tower for steam railroad engines. Or equipped with an antenna, a radio transmission tower. All these possibilities are evoked in the rusted framework overgrown with vines in the center of the exhibit space and in drawings that specify the various alternative uses.

While off to the side is a cluttered little radio broadcast studio for a fictitious Buffalo station broadcasting rock music interrupted by a series of news reports on a potentially catastrophic local weather event resulting from the confluence of the Iceland volcanic eruption ash cloud and local lake effect thunderstorm. The early reports cause panic in the streets, but then the reports are revealed to be a hoax, perpetrated by an artist from Hallwalls, of all things. (A script of the broadcast is available in the studio, or you can hear it if you stand under a speaker in a corner of the exhibit space.)

The art historical reference of course is to Orson Welles’ 1939 radio broadcast of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, resulting in widespread panic concerning a supposed Martian invasion.

So the tower on the floor of the exhibit space is a radio broadcast tower. But what you have to know—and this is explained on an informational placard—is that during the 1939 broadcast, an armed troop of residents of the town in New Jersey where it was reported the aliens had landed descended on the center of town and opened fire on a tower there (originally a windmill that had since been converted to a water tower) that they mistook for a spaceship or other apparatus related to the supposed alien invasion. (A lesson that art teaches generally is that we see what we think we see. Sometimes that translates to we see what we want to see.)

So, Van Aken takes the subject of art as deceptive back to Orson Welles. And the focal point is the tower, the former windmill. What about taking it back earlier to Cervantes? Don Quixote tilting at windmills? A much more complex and profound meditation on the subject of art as deceptive.

What about taking it back to Plato? For whom art, as imitation, was less true than what it imitated, so that he wound up banishing art from his ideal state. (Cf. Aristotle’s slightly later dictum, clearly in response to Plato, unabashedly defining the art of tragedy as the imitation of an action…)

On the other hand, maybe Van Aken is taking it back to Plato. At the end of the radio play—the Van Aken radio play, not the Welles broadcast—we learn in an interview with a Buffalo policeman that the artist who perpetrated the weather event hoax has been apprehended and is now safely behind bars.

Or even Aristotle, in the blatant imitation of the Orson Welles occasion.

The exhibit is called I Am Here Today, which is the legend Charlie Chaplin inscribed inside his famous derby hat. It isn’t clear what exactly Charlie Chaplin or the legend has to do with the matter of art as deceptive.

Charlie Chaplin is remembered for his work in movies, an art form much concerned with deception. But no more, essentially, than any other art form.

Some other things, too, seem not to connect. The potted dead saplings inside and outside the radio broadcast studio. The copious amount of rock salt in the studio.

The informational placard states that this project “takes place in the perceptual gaps between artifice and authentic experience.” Maybe that’s what’s going on with the disconnects. They’re perceptual gaps.

The Sam Van Aken exhibit continues through June 4.

jack foran

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