Most of us use a whole roster of household appliances every day without ever stopping to think about the invisible -- but potentially lethal -- stream of electricity that powers it.
In 1903, Thomas Edison infamously tried to demonstrate the hazards of alternating current, which now powers all of our homes and businesses, by using it to electrocute a circus elephant. Today, sensibly, safety precautions dictate that we keep our energy at a comfortable remove, insulated and grounded, tucked away in walls and ceilings or buried underground.
For most of us, the only reminder of electricity's deadly force comes when we see a baby make a beeline for an unguarded socket, a radio teetering on the edge of the bathtub, or we get a quick shock from a badly wired lamp.
In Vacant Circumstances: this and something else, his solo exhibition at Aceartinc., Dong-Kyoon Nam gives presence to the hidden currents that power our daily lives. By making simple but often startling modifications to commonplace appliances like oscillating fans, vacuum cleaners, and light fixtures, Nam creates a surreal domestic landscape charged as much with psychological dread as with electrical energy.
Just Once consists of two oscillating fans placed "face-to-face." Bound together in a cocoon of what must be dozens of linked white extension cords, which spill onto the floor like the train of a wedding dress, they blow at one another in an uncanny "kiss." The temptation to read the upright fans as mute human figures is overpowering and not at all reassuring.
A related, untitled work installed nearby initially looks like little more than a pile of coiled red extension cords. With the push of a foot pedal, however, we hear the muffled roar of the Shop-Vac hidden inside. The viewer doesn't know in either piece if all of the cables are actually live, though that's the assumption -- that uncertainty lends the unassuming sculptures their subtle, menacing edge.
The remaining works have a similarly surreal, mildly hallucinatory quality that only heightens the exhibition's anxious tone. The Verticals is a group of seven generic-looking floor lamps that Nam has reconfigured, extending their thin supporting columns to untenable lengths, flipping them upside-down and leaning them against the walls in an eerie huddle.
Event Horizon, its title a reference to the "point of no return" approaching a black hole, is chest-height line of illuminated fluorescent lights that slices across one of the long gallery walls. Only as you get closer do you notice the countless battery-powered clocks that line the fixtures, their faces turned toward away from us, inexorably and ominously ticking away.
The only non-powered work, an expansive grid of cast plaster light switches that spreads across the rear of the gallery, conveys a similar sense of inevitability and resignation. The nonfunctioning switches, nearly invisible against the white wall, offer an overwhelming array of false choices. The pillow placed on floor below is either an invitation to lie down and give up or to pray.
Vacant Circumstance's strength is in its subtlety--the assortment of characterless appliances and fixtures makes almost no impression at all, at first. Gradually, however, you notice the faint electrical hum hanging in the air, a faint signal of a vital, vicious energy coursing just below the surface of everyday life.
Steven Leyden Cochrane is a Winnipeg-based artist, writer and educator.