The University Art Gallery in UCSD’s Mandeville Center was oddly “haunted” on March 13 for the opening of “My Strangest Stranger,” a show by visiting artist Mary Walling Blackburn, up through May 9.
The show wasn’t haunted by old-time ghosts, the likes of which haunt the Whaley House in Old Town or the Hotel Del Coronado, but rather by aliens and extraterrestrials. Though unseen, they were somehow summoned, and seemed to ooze out of the woodwork and slither their way into the innermost fantasies and fears of patrons.
You could sense their presence through hints of shadows revealed in the glow of the single, large industrial spotlight that illuminated the interior of the unlit gallery. You could hear them talking, as an overlay to the distant sound of patrons conversing. You could read their encrypted writings when you thumbed through pages of books, such as Nausea, Maria Sabin, The Invisible Man, and a Superman comic book, sitting on the shelf in the alcove attached to the exhibit.
But you were absolutely sure they were there because you heard the sound of their spacecraft landing, captured in the deep tones rolling out of three speakers, which creaked and crackled the music of an actual earthquake recorded by Scripps Institute of Oceanography scientists.
Gallery attendant Arturo Hernandez said many people strode into the gallery and then turned around and walked back out because they didn’t see any paintings on the walls. The one work (a huge mural) hung from the ceiling, is a copy of a mural that will be painted by Blackburn on a stretch of old abandoned highway out in the desert in an area frequented by border crossers from Mexico.
Patrons were given small mirrors to hold in their hands and look at a captured reflection of the ceiling artwork, which consisted of strange, cloud-like figures. Blackburn said this is the method people once used to look at ceiling art in the great cathedrals of Europe. One visitor put down a pattern of several mirrors on the floor to capture an image of the mural. One art patron, Sam Agrabathy, laid down on his back on the floor in order to look up at it.
In the gallery back room, videos of Blackburn interviewing people who claim to have had encounters with aliens (in places like Turkey, France and the California desert), were running on a video loop that could be viewed as you sat on a bench and listened with headphones.
In an amusing video, Blackburn takes a ride in a desert dweller’s pickup truck with “Flying Saucer Towing and Repair Service” stenciled on his truck door. Blackburn and the driver go to a special phone booth where stranded aliens call him and she mimics a call. The truck driver keeps frozen berries in his refrigerator, because that is what aliens reportedly crave.
The show is a metaphor for how we organize our perception of the unknown, the strange, and the different. Curator Michelle Hyun explained, “ ‘My Strangest Stranger’ engages the psychic and performative aspects of extraterrestrial encounters in areas adjacent to both natural and national borders. Mary Walling Blackburn attempts to plumb ways in which our perception of these visitations overlaps with the paths and behaviors of expatriates — ourselves as the Other, the Alien, the Extraterrestrial, the Strangest Stranger.”