The first of two parts to “Empty Orchestra” is an international exhibition of video installation, featuring the work of contemporary artists who embrace, challenge, and re-appropriate the notion of karaoke as a medium of individual expression and collective identity. By infiltrating mass-produced karaoke videos, meditating on the fantastical desire to channel stardom, bringing to light the lesser-known and sub-cultural social connections that karaoke can form within multicultural communities, and by humorously playing with the notion of a shared popular culture, the artists present a wide range of considerations of the karaoke phenomenon in various countries around the world. Their participatory and media installations make up an exciting new area of curatorial programming for both Reel Asian and Gendai Gallery.
The exhibition “Empty Orchestra” explores karaoke (the word from which the exhibition title is translated) and its relationship to both contemporary art and cultural diasporas. Transforming the Justina M. Barnicke Gallery into five separate karaoke rooms, this exhibition presents video and installation works by Candice Breitz, Christian Jankowski, Karen Tam, Iichiro Tanaka, and Wang Gongxin, who examine karaoke as a commodified interface between technology and culture, addressing its effects on social activity, diasporic communities, and popular culture in a global context.
The artists’ karaoke rooms and lounges suggest the complex social role that karaoke plays in the negotiations of cultural tradition and meanings. Some works emphasize the role of karaoke as a cultural practice in which diverse social groups play an active role constructing and perpetuating a sense of identity. Karaoke, as an “interaction structure,” can be seen to foster, build, and maintain community through participatory singing. Other works focus more closely on diverse people’s desire for stardom in the context of a global spectacular and highly “mediatized” culture. Rather than becoming co-incident with that culture, however, the artists’ critical perspective is perhaps more closely aligned with Walid Sadek’s reading of karaoke as a possible model of resistance. He points out that it is the completely unprofessional, unpolished, unoriginal aspect of karaoke that resists the false ideal of “genius” or “fullness” that is perpetuated in large-scale media spectacle as broadcast and domesticated in popular entertainment. In the strange mixed conditions of amateur performers, cheaply produced imitations of pop music tracks and videos, and living room-type atmospheres, the activity of karaoke always falls short. In this failure the amateur performer reveals the falsity of the claim for the possibility of fullness, and the possibility of resisting the colonial and capitalist agenda occurs. Equally, the artists in this exhibition explore the potential of karaoke as a platform for diverse cultural exchanges and the construction of complex, new identities.
–Heather Keung and Maiko Tanaka, curators
“Killing me softly with his song. Telling my whole life with his words…” On 10 television monitors, 10 karaoke singers (whose first language is not English) sing slightly off-key versions of the hit 1970s classic by American singer Roberta Flack.
Candice Breitz (b. 1972 in Johannesburg, South Africa) currently lives and works in Berlin. Her work has been exhibited around the world including solo shows at the Moderna Museet, Stockholm; Modern Art, Oxford; and Palais de Tokyo, Paris.
The Day We Met, 2003
In collaboration with the karaoke company Taijin Media in Korea, Jankowski cast himself as “leading man.” As a handsome European foreigner, he appears in several melodramatic and romantic scenarios with beautiful Asian women. The videos are not set to any music, allowing spectators to choose the soundtrack from a songbook, underscoring the generic nature and customizability of these cheaply produced mini-dramas.
Christian Jankowski (b.1968, Göttingen, Germany) has had solo exhibitions at Macarone Inc. in New York, Lisson Gallery in the U.K., and Para-site in Hong Kong. His work is included in public collections such as the Whitney Museum of American Art, Kunsthalle Zurich, & Musée d’Art Contemporain, Marseilles.
Tchang Tchou Karaoke Lounge, 2008
Tam’s private lounge is colourfully decorated with Chinese decorative paper cutouts, a disco ball, neon signs, and luxurious plush seating. Equipped with microphones and an audio-visual karaoke setup, the installation plays with Eastern and Western perceptions of ‘Chinese-ness,’ while featuring golden oldies with lyrics that have been translated into Chinese.
Karen Tam received a BFA from Concordia University, Montreal, and an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Tam has exhibited her work in Canada, Ireland, the U.K., and the U.S. Recent solo and group exhibitions include: Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, Centre A (Vancouver), the Southern Alberta Art Gallery, and Musée d’Art Contemporain de Montréal.
Classical Music Karaoke, 2006
Beaches, parks, airports, and famous tourist destinations such as miniature versions of the Taj Mahal and St. Petersburg provide backgrounds for Tanaka’s karaoke versions of European classics “The Nutcracker” and “The Barber of Seville.” Playfully bringing bourgeois classical music to the common karaoke lounge, the sing-along ‘text’ absurdly appears in the form of nonsense onomatopaiec katakana.
Iichiro Tanaka (b. 1974 in Aichi, Japan) is represented by Tokyo-based contemporary gallery space Yuka Sasahara. He received his MA in design at the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music in 2001, and has since had solo and group exhibitions throughout Japan.
Kara Oke, 2002
Framed entirely within a close-up shot of the artist’s mouth, a chorus of Chinese karaoke singers appears, one on each tooth, all singing the same high-pitched note. As the mouth smiles, snickers, moves its tongue, and licks its teeth, the singers are silenced as they are shut down, but resiliently re-appear whenever the mouth re-opens.
Wang Gongxin (b. 1960 in Beijing, China) graduated from Capital Normal University in Beijing and is a professor at Central Academy of Fine Arts, also in Beijing. Recent exhibitions include “All About Laughter” at the Mori Art Museum, Japan; “The Real Thing” at Tate Liverpool, U.K.; “Art in Motion” at Long March Space, Beijing; and “Projected Realities” at Asia Society and Museum, New York.
Weekend Leisure is a film/video “collective” comprised of four Vancouverites: Erich Gerl, Curtis Grahauer, Christy Nyiri, and Pietro Sammarco. Together they unite to create a bit of video, sing a little karaoke, and, ultimately, save the world from impending disaster. Weekend Leisure’s karaoke videos will be part of Empty Orchestra’s closing reception.