Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Cute! at Rice Cubicle

Betsy Huete

Rice Gallery’s satellite video space, Rice Cubicle, is currently showing a suite of six short films in an exhibition called Creature Worlds. Creature Worlds refers to the playful, whimsical characters that populate just about all of the films as well as how they interact with the environments the animators have created for them. Adorableness seems to be the common strain that threads them together, as bouncy music and pudgy, wide-eyed animals run, jump, tumble, morph, and fumble across the screen. But if all Rice Gallery wanted us to do was grip our foam-block seats with sadistic glee and giggle and clap maniacally, they could’ve just put on a lengthy rotation of YouTube cats, or waddling babies falling over. Instead, as they make clear with their gallery handout, these films by and large use cuteness as a segue to grander, more serious stories of life and death. Sometimes juxtaposing sweetness and humor with stern and perhaps sinister subject matter yields curiously jarring and effective results, and some of these films use this strategy even-handedly to take us beyond something just cute and fun to look at. And then there are other moments where the animators get caught up, seduced by the simplicity and satisfaction of their own creations.

Saigo No Shudan, KUNCHI (2013)

KUNCHI is a perfect example of the accompanying music making or breaking the work. Without it, the film would be just a bunch of white shapes bouncing around the screen. But with a chiming, incessant, almost shamanistic beat, the objects moving from right to left fall somewhere between a parade and ecstatic funeral procession. As the first wave passes by, ghosts sprout from a non-existent ground, hurling themselves at the passersby. They get stomped on as the second group rolls through, but one can only assume they will return as soon as the next batch of shapes move on.

KUNCHI from saigo no shudan on Vimeo.

FriendsWithYou, Cloudy (2012)

A sleek, well-crafted animated short, Cloudy starts off promising. A fluffy white cloud faces the viewer head on, singularly humming an upbeat tune while blinking, oval black holes for eyes stare us down. Transforming the natural creation of rain into a Fordist, mechanized enterprise is a compelling prospect. Depicting obese raindrops as happy-go-lucky laborers shoveling clouds and stabilizing pipes, to name a few tasks, before blissfully leaping to their deaths provides an avenue to construct meaning in a potentially subversive manner. Unfortunately, the overly childlike, xylophone laden score devolves the film within a couple of minutes into a tedious episode of Barney.

Tyler Nicolson, No Noodles (2012)

Out of all of the films, No Noodles is probably the cutest. The entire film—all two minutes of it—takes place at a dinner table, replete with a glass of water, silverware, and a large bowl of noodles. It doesn’t take long for things to get wacky, as various animals such as dinosaurs, lizards, whales, and fish leap, swim, jump through and on top of a very unlikely ecosystem. Rice Gallery’s handout states that the surprise lies in “seeing what pops out of the bowl next.” But even in this short of a time frame, the viewer quickly gets used to the idea of bizarre animals popping out of a bowl of noodles, whatever the reason or logic behind it may be. That part becomes gimmicky within thirty seconds or so. What is most compelling is instead the few times Nicolson has the animals interact directly with the bowl or silverware, as opposed to keeping them confined inside the bowl or under the noodles. By far, the most humanized aspect of the film is a rudimentary lizard: hopping onto the lip of the bowl, he is perched and hunched over, looking around curiously and confusedly. Curling and waving his tail, he seems like he wants to explore further, but instead opts to jump back into the bowl from whence he came.

No Noodles from Tyler Nicolson on Vimeo.

Jordan Bruner, The Leaf Woman & the Centaur (2011)

Quasi-scientific, quasi-biological: The Leaf Woman starts out with the Big Bang. From the Big Bang derives a mythical, god-like leaf creature (we assume is a woman) who plants seeds that breed all the animals in existence. Using paper cut-outs connected at the joints, Bruner builds characters with abrupt movements that feel jerky and generative. The score by Future Perfect accentuates a crescendo that is increasingly anxious and intense; as the Leaf Woman plants more seeds and breeds more life, everything—including the viewer—feels more and more chaotic. Animals dance, flip, copulate: mating humans get interrupted by a horse; the horse and woman breed a centaur. The centaur becomes enamored with the Leaf Woman. In an effort to capture her he kills her. The throbbing heart is completely over the top, but the plot is a surprisingly non-literal way to show how our rapid evolution is the very thing that will likely kill off our own species.

The Leaf Woman & the Centaur from Jordan Bruner on Vimeo.

Takuto Katayama, Dissimilated Vision (2012)

Dissimilated Vision is by far the most pared down, yet the most elegant of the six. The film does little more than follow a contour line as it morphs into various shapes, including eyes and fingers, just to name a couple. With a few notes of a piano, the line becomes a woman’s face—a face that becomes erased by her own windswept hair. But as the seconds roll on it becomes clear that Katayama is more intent on displaying entertaining optics than conveying meaning. The film becomes a heavy-handed barrage of eyes and mouths, and eyes in mouths, and more eyes, and more mouths.

異化した視覚 / Dissimilated Vision from KATAYAMA Takuto on Vimeo.

Asami Ike, USAWALTZ (2011)

It’s hard not to want to reach through the screen and hug all of Ike’s animals in USAWALTZ. Little rabbits bounce and kick atop a swimming dolphin. She gradually turns vertical, and spinning and ascending, touches her snout with a polar bear. The bear touches the paw of a lion, and so on, each twirling, eyes closed in utter serenity. Meanwhile, the hyperactive rabbits climb the bodies of the much larger animals as if they are steep, snowy mountaintops. There’s something relaxing, yet oddly disturbing about these ascending animals—as if they are privy to something we aren’t, as if their serenity is otherworldly.

USAWALTZ from Asami Ike on Vimeo.

Creature Worlds runs until November 23, 2014, at Rice Cubicle.

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