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YBCA's New Room for Big Ideas Gallery is SoMA's Newest Art Space

Oscillations

Oscillations by Surabhi Saraf and Sebastian Alvarez

SoMA is home to several free, non-gallery spaces offering world-class public art–they just take a little finding. To discover the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts’ Room for Big Ideas (RBI), though, one need only be aware of it. Its windowed corner façade opens right to a bustling, if unsuspecting, Mission Street. Now you know, and you have every reason to peek inside.

RBI is the curatorial domain of Katya Min, who also runs the Mission project space icTus Gallery. Her mission at YBCA is simple: To produce exhibitions of artists whose aesthetics are wildly different, and who have probably never interacted, but whose work nevertheless speaks to a particular common theme. The current show, New World, New Sequence, posits the digitally mediated nature of modern reality as its common center. Acting as explorers, interrogators and harnessers of this hybridized world are Evan Bissell, Gregory Ito, Surabhi Saraf and Sebastian Alvarez–four artists at the peaks of their powers.

Each piece in the exhibition is dramatic in its own right, but Saraf and Alvarez’ Oscillations is not to be outdone. Originally envisioned as a live performance (the form of which I would have loved to behold), the work transformed for this show into a computer-controlled, immersive installation, housed within a one-person chamber. Inside, the audience (if you will) is prompted to take a seat and close her eyes, whereupon she is treated to a synesthetic performance of synchronized lights, blowing fans and speakers emitting strident whirs and booming electronic groans. The ambience is overwhelmingly sinister or overwhelmingly awesome, depending on your disposition, and that is the point. One person may find a windswept dystopian wasteland, another, a sublime encounter with the cosmos. This is theater of the inner eyelids, the mind as solo as it gets.

Ito, in stark contrast to the bristling austerity of Oscillations, converts his quadrant of the gallery into a grand, florid altar of sorts–a pastiche of Eastern funerary items laid out upon a raised, faux-marble base, with a projected disc of swirling, psychedelic colors poised above. The honored subject here is none other than the sun itself. Interring itself daily, only to ascend anew, it calls for a perpetual wake of the sort Ito has granted. However, In the Wake of the Setting Sun becomes complete only with audience participation: Ito calls upon the viewer to leave some “found object” upon the altar’s steps as an offering. The haul (currently consisting of bus tickets, origami-folded magazine pages, a pile of nondescript yellowish powder and some other such stuff) will ultimately make its way down to Ocean Beach, where, at sunset, the artist will set it aflame.

The last big idea here is Bissell’s ambitious Knotted Line, “an interactive history of the relationship of freedom and confinement in the geographic area of the United States from 1495 to 2025.” Taking current national incarceration rates–what Bissell sees as an untenable epidemic–as his launching point, the artist went on to create an educational website (knottedline.com) that, through dovetailing text and illustrated images, lays out a nonlinear history of this fraught sociological subject. This particular installation consists of a video describing the project, two computer interfaces on which viewers can explore the site, and a wall bearing a web-like array of the site’s core, hand-drawn images. Bissell’s overt didacticism here sets Knotted Line apart from its more oblique, open-ended neighbors. It is not the sexiest work on display, but it does provide a welcome balance to the exhibition; without it, this roomful of big ideas threatens to drift entirely aloft.

New World, New Sequence runs through January 13 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts; 701 Mission Street