Lo on Time

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Correction Appended

The 10 artists participating in the new San Francisco Arts Commission gallery, entitled "Now & When," were given a simple assignment: Create a time capsule. The results, impressively disparate considering the straightforward instructions, looked nothing like a container filled with trinkets fit for burial - the vision of the time capsule we're used to.

Instead, local artists tried to evoke a more esoteric, personal conception of what it means to be alive, and actively living, on this day in 2010.

The SFAC gallery, which is free to all visitors, resides in a narrow white-walled room within the Herbst Theater, across the street from City Hall. As you enter "Now & When" through a pair of glass doors so streak-free they'd make for a good Windex ad, the first thing to catch your eye is a large collage of colorful images. Composed of screen shots from various sci-fi movies, the collage conveys a sense of futurism, but an outdated one. After all, seeing a photo of HAL, the faceless talking computer from "2001: A Space Odyssey," is an immediate reminder that we're still a ways off from the future that Hollywood has long envisioned - one in which our cars fly and our computers have personalities.

The collage, entitled "Proof," was created by Margaret Tedesco and Matt Borruso. Many of the films depicted deal explicitly with a dystopic future. The underlying theme is that humans not only expect technological progress, but we fear that our unrelenting obsession with it may someday destroy us.

Using pop culture to arouse some of the most prevalent and deep-seated emotions held by 20th and 21st century people, "Proof" is impressive in both form and effect.

Of the other works at SFAC, none are conventional, but not all of them are captivating. The best pieces are the ones that attempt to preserve people - their personalities and their stories - instead of mere objects.

The most successful example is Ken Lo's piece, "Someone for Someone Forever and Ever." A UC Berkeley grad and conceptual artist, Lo's project was the most emotionally affecting of the works at SFAC, and also the most ambitious.

He managed (with some difficulty, he told me) to persuade nine individuals, most of them fellow artists or friends, to consent to be interviewed on the subject of an important moment in their romantic lives. Ken's instructions were, characteristically, a little strange: get dressed in what you normally wear to bed, get under the covers, and let me stick this camera in your face while you tell me about your love life.

Mr. Lo, whose most striking feature is his dry humor, said one motivation for the project was his decided penchant for voyeurism - his nagging desire to know more about the people he knows: How they see themselves, what they're like in bed, who they're screwing. "I'm just curious about people," he said. Though I'm dubious of his innocence, I'm thankful for the results.

What makes his project so interesting is that the moments he documented were not particularly cinematic. "I wanted to commemorate small moments that are really significant," he said.

In addition to a small screen that shows the film of each interview, Ken's corner of the gallery is decorated with an assortment of objects - a screen-printed surfboard, a pewter raccoon mug, a dollhouse-sized hotel with a photo of two people peering out - whose significance it is possible to glean only by watching the interviews.

In a nod to traditional time capsules, Ken commemorated each interviewee by fabricating an object based on an aspect of his or her story. In one interview, a young woman describes a teenage love affair. "I wanted to be a heartbreaker, just because I could," she said. She subsequently got a spiral tattoo - the Buddhist symbol of compassion - inked over her heart. "I see it everyday and it's there to remind me never to be cruel to people who care about me," she said. As a companion to the interview, Ken designed a necklace with a spiral pendant to reference the woman's story and her tattoo.

The other stories were more optimistic about love; some were very beautiful. One woman recalled a day when, spending time with an ex-girlfriend at an art gallery, she experienced what can only be called an epiphany - "This is the woman I want to spend my life with," she remembers thinking.

Undoubtedly the weirdest story was Ken Lo's own. His story goes like this: One time after having sex, Ken's partner noted the sweaty spot that had formed on his side of the sheets. She got up and went to the bathroom, returning with a towel that she placed over the wet spot, saving Ken from spending his post-coital recovery in a pool of bodily fluids. Ken was touched. A bronzed towel represents his story in the gallery.

Ken Lo's art, and the kind of acts he finds poignant, are unusual, but according to him, his life is similar to those of many other Bay Area artists. "Art is my career, but not my profession," says Lo, who manages a shop during the weekdays. "Most artists I know have a 9-to-5, or some sort of freelance job. Some are graphic designers, or even gardeners."

Rare is the conceptual or visual artist who can make a living creating art - and, according to Ken, most of them live in New York or LA. Part of it is that the markets in those cities are so much larger than in San Francisco - there are just so many more possible buyers. But there's another reason, Ken has noticed. "A lot of it is about branding. It's like, 'Oh, you got that at Saks?' Artists in LA and New York have this cache that San Francisco artists just don't have."

Is he resentful of this? Not really, he says. "There are greater inequalities in the world than the fact that NYC artists are perceived as more important than San Francisco artists. I can live with that."

This lack of expectation can have its benefits, he explains. "Working in San Francisco, assuming that no one will buy anything - it sort of frees you up to try new things."

Nevertheless, Ken Lo is ready to hit it big. "I want it all - big galleries, money, groupies," he says, and it's hard to tell how much he's joking. "For me, making art just for the happiness and the satisfaction of creating something is becoming not enough for me anymore."

This sort of dissatisfaction seems like a necessary antecedent to personal success in any field.

But whether or not Ken Lo becomes a household name, his piece at "Now and When," and the gallery as a whole, is a contribution to the vast time capsule that is our cultural and emotional memory. The ten stories told in Ken's project speak for themselves - each is moving and memorable in its own way - but Ken's interest in them, and his straightforward presentation, speaks volumes. More than a voyeur, he brings human connection to the forefront of his art.

Tags: SAN FRANCISCO ART COMMISSION, NOW AND WHEN, KEN LO

Correction: Friday, July 2, 2010
In the original version of this article, Nick Moore was listed as a contributing writer. In fact, he is a Daily Cal staff writer.

The Daily Californian regrets the error.

Offer Nick a bronzed towel on a hot summer day at [email protected]



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