Rummage through a museum’s basement, and who knows what you’ll find.
That’s even truer when the building in question has gone through past lives as an SRO hotel, a Chinese social club or a retail storefront for a century or more, as the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience has.
In their new show, “transit in half-light: Lead Pencil Studio encounters The Wing’s collection,” Annie Han and Daniel Mihalyo have devised a three-room “immersive installation” mixing their own handiwork with items found from various corners of the museum. Not necessarily art objects, mind you. Hand trucks, lanterns, a bicycle, empty picture frames, crates and trunks are all part of the picture.
Their aim, Han and Mihalyo say, is to create “dreamlike landscapes, eliciting a dialogue about migration, transit, material extraction, and labor.”
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Mihalyo, who is from Bellevue, and Han, from South Korea, met at the University of Oregon in 1991 and are based in Seattle. In 1997 they established Lead Pencil Studio, an outfit blending site-specific art projects, art installations and actual functional architecture.
The Wing Luke exhibit undermines the conventions of museum exhibition in a variety of ways. For one thing, nothing in it is titled or labeled. Viewers are supposed to bring their own slant and interpretation to this miscellany.
The cleverest items may be two translucent glass display cases in which bright, colorful objects can be half-seen but stay obstinately out of focus. They’re like memories that can’t quite be recovered, or words on the tip of your tongue that just won’t materialize. The display cases suggest an immigrant’s familiarity with things that used to be there — treasured possessions, family heirlooms, cultural talismans — but now are out of grasp.
An equally surreal piece is a precariously loaded cargo-container ship, made of white plaster, that’s being bisected by a white plaster whale (the containers are painted a glossy gray). This hybrid vessel — half-animal, half-machine — is headed toward a video projection of waves on the open sea.
The Wing Luke’s exhibit director, Michelle Kumata, explains that this is one of the pieces in the show that blurs “the line between our collection and what they created.” Han and Mihalyo made both the ceramic cargo containers and plaster whale/container ship combo.
Other sights include a deliberately arranged semicircle of hand trucks, a booth made of cedar shingles (neat at the front, ragged at the back) and a whole storeroom
with a wall-high accumulation of discarded trunks, crates, barrels, buckets and boxes. Serving as a centerpiece of the storeroom is a large, gold-painted statue of Buddha, its head and torso wrapped as if in preparation for shipping. The effect is a little like finding yourself in the attic of someone whose plans for a life-changing journey were interrupted.
Some of the found-art entries in “transit” — those hand trucks — seem a bit of a non-starter (how hard was that to put together?). But a corridor of empty picture frames facing one another has an eerie effect. Look closely, and you’ll see minuscule figures and rugged horizons (as in Chinese or Japanese ink-drawn landscapes) traced on the surface of the glass, or the stained paper backdrop behind the framed glass or, in a couple of instances, on mirrors that reflect your own image.
An ambient soundtrack, combining murmuring ocean waves with ship engines’ groanings and more mysterious sounds, adds to the atmospherics of the show.
Lead Pencil Studio has won the Rome Prize from the American Academy in Rome and other honors. “transit in half-light,” if not a total knockout on every score, strongly hints at what makes this artistic duo special.
Michael Upchurch: firstname.lastname@example.org