Summer at The Modern is strangely quiet. School is out and airlines are busy, transporting passengers to extraordinary destinations previously trapped within the glossy pages of Travel and Leisure. In the airport, the humdrum and the exotic are divorced by a series of ramps, conveyor belts, metal and glass. Above the clouds, passengers sip ginger-ale, forgetting momentarily that in the end they’ll find themselves in a vacuous terminal, waiting for the return-flight home. But here is where the tension lies: we seek the unfamiliar, knowing it will only anchor in us a relentless longing for home. Somewhere during our travels, we will discover the so-called “ordinary” is, in fact, filled with possibility.
I found myself contemplating this while wandering the galleries upstairs. Video artist Hiraki Sawa reveals the extraordinary potential of the ordinary in his eight-minute video, Dwelling (2003), part of the museum’s permanent collection. In Dwelling, toy miniature planes take flight within his own sparse London apartment. With its occupant seemingly absent, graceful Boeings and jet planes traverse the expanse of empty rooms, suggesting the presence of an unseen world.
Sawa's miniature planes are whimsical, but they also provoke a sense of unease. Lacking a specific destination, the planes seem restless, trapped in the apartment like yesterday’s stale emotions. Where is the occupant? Perhaps on vacation, or daydreaming in a conference room at work; in all cases unaware his unmade bed has become a landing strip for flight.
To those – like myself – who aren’t traveling, the warmth of summer skies also invites reflection. Shifting constellations and meteor showers welcome star-gazers to engage the sublime, composed of the same dust as ourselves. We are reminded, again, of the relationship between the ordinary and extraordinary – a dichotomy also suggested by Brian Fridge’s Vault Sequence No. 10 (2000).
At first glance, Vault Sequence No. 10, a silent four-minute black-and-white film, appears to be a time-lapsed video recording of a glittery galaxy or quasar. The nebulous white particles on the screen spiral and implode, evoking thoughts of primordial dust, “the void”, or evolution. But what Fridge actually records is ice and smoke moved by condensation inside his kitchen freezer. I was reminded of the poet William Carlos Williams, who himself found infinite beauty in a red wheelbarrow. In the same way, Fridge subjects a relatively banal object to serious examination, finding wonderment within an appliance generally filled with frozen dinners. Though the natural process of freezer condensation is incredibly "ordinary", the swirls and movements created are not something that we, as viewers, are generally privy to... since we don't often spend much time inside of our own freezers.
Both films are projected on the opposite wall from the other in the same gallery. Fridge’s work is meant to be silent, but it was impossible to watch without hearing the whir of takeoffs and landings in Sawa’s domestic airport. This curatorial effect creates a dialogue between the two films, as though both are echoes of the same thought. Dwelling conjures themes of migration and displacement, but also reveals the majestic within the mundane. By dabbling in science, Vault Sequence unearths the extraordinary buried in the banal. Both quietly encourage me to reevaluate my own surroundings from a fresh perspective.