“Far From Indochine,” the latest meaty offering at the New Art Center, looks at the Vietnam War and its legacies in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. At its core, the exhibition considers the economic, cultural, and political tensions between national powers and these countries — a dynamic that began with French colonizers, and continued with American intervention.
Curator Chu’o’ng-Dài Võ,who proposed “Far From Indochine” for the New Art Center’s consistently excellent Curatorial Opportunity Program for independent projects, creates a succinct but ambitious show that elegantly ties themes of history, economics, art, and power together in three works inspired by life in Southeast Asia today.
That’s a lot of content, but the installation’s great strength is in its lean formality, which at once pays tribute to modernism (which Võ, in her exhibition essay, links to colonialism, noting how early modernists were fueled by imagery and techniques from colonized regions), and invokes the fluid borders between Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. The three works here all revolve around a long, narrow rectangle, yet in different ways they reach out to one another, interact, and overflow.
The rectangle in Patty Chang and David Kelley’s three-channel video “Route 3” is a panoramic screen. The video investigates the effects of a new international highway from Beijing making its way through previously rural areas. The Chinese are the latest economic force to hold sway in Laos.
Flitting from a beauty parlor, where one customer repeatedly mouths “There is an imaginary [sic] that if you move closer to the road, life will be better,” to a new casino, to more rustic areas, the film gravely portrays the impact of so-called progress on Laotians.
At the same time, it gets comically impudent, as it follows a large, boxy rectangle framed with curtains — almost a giant puppet — around countryside and city. It’s a visual metaphor for all the empty trucks rumbling up Route 3 with no other purpose than to make the road look busy.
Frédéric Sanchez’s painting “For My People” looms over “Far From Indochine.” A red monochrome, it’s modernist through and through, but it’s also a reproduction of a billboard Sanchez saw in northern Vietnam, which every few years is repainted with a new socialist message. Before the new message goes up, though, it gets a new coat of red paint — the color of communism, of the Vietnamese flag, and, for the Vietnamese, of fortuitous new beginnings.
Dewey Ambrosino’s installation “Hiding in the Light” has at its center a long curtain of reflective mylar, which billows and casts rivers of light and shadow up on the wall. Throughout the exhibition, Ambrosino has hung night-vision photographs of an insect farm in Cambodia.
It’s not easy to farm in Cambodia, which is still laden with landmines placed during the Cambodian Civil War in the 1970s. Insect farms are safe areas, where the mines have been removed. At night, fluorescent lights attract the bugs, which hit a plastic wall and drop into troughs of water to drown and be harvested for food. The mylar curtain here is brilliantly lit with stage lights, and viewers drawn close are blinded and hit with heat. Allure and danger go hand in hand.
These works fit together formally, and in their cautionary message about how political and economic interests can shape and sometimes heedlessly trample over entire peoples.
Photographs of impact
Then there is the earth itself, trampled by industry and demands for energy. Garth Lenz’s photographs of the Alberta Tar Sands and Canada’s magnificent boreal forest, which tar mining threatens, are on view at 555 Gallery.
Lenz often shoots from a plane, finding stunning patterns in the landscape below. “Boreal Forest and Wetland, Athabasca Delta, Northern Alberta” and “Tar Pit #3, Alberta Tar Sands” hang side by side. They sport similar snaking curves. But in “Boreal Forest,” those curves mark the contours of a startlingly blue river, coiling through golden autumnal woods, and in “Tar Pit #3,” they are mining roads, ribboning around sickly, orange-green pools and knobby, rutted, scarred earth.
Whether he’s photographing industry or landscape, Lenz gives his image massive scope, high-resolution detail, and a keen sense of shape, pattern, and texture — he seeks and finds abstraction in landscapes. “Tailings Pond in Winter, Abstract #1, Alberta Tar Sands” and “Aspen and Spruce, Northern Alberta” have the same sense of being covered in pale textures, interrupted by veined darkness — a spruce, in the first case, and in the second, dark oily strands among ice, sand, and wavering traces of water.
Like Lenz, Lisa Wiltse photographs impacts of the energy industry. She visited urban slums in Manila, where children are put to work gathering scraps of wood to make charcoal. One image in the “Charcoal Kids of Ulingan” series shows a little boy, no more than 5, pausing from his labor to wipe the soot from his face with his shirt.
Lenz depicts how our hunger for energy scars the earth; Wiltse’s photos of child labor, extreme poverty, and miserable working conditions reveal the human cost, and remind us — as “Far From Indochine” does — of how indifferent to ordinary people economic powers can be.
Far from Indochine
At: New Art Center,
61 Washington Park, Newtonville,
through Oct. 18. 617-964-3424, www.newartcenter.org
Garth Lenz: The True Cost of Oil
Lisa Wiltse: Charcoal Kids
At: 555 Gallery, 555 East Second St., South Boston, through Oct. 4.
Cate McQuaid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.