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.”
Gallery attendant Hernandez said “When we were putting up the mural, Blackburn asked me, ‘What do you think of aliens or extraterrestrials? They may not come from outer space, they may come from the center of the Earth — or they might be right inside of you!’ ”
In connection with the exhibit, patrons were given a copy of the magazine Pastelegram. The issue, titled “Extra Earth Analog,” is modeled on the Whole Earth Catalog.
Pastelegram editor Ariel Evans attended from Los Angeles, where she is working on her dissertation on photography of the 1960s. She noted, “Mary Blackburn is a brilliant artist who thinks things carefully through.”
Evan’s assistant, architect Josh Conrad noted, “Blackburn traveled around the world to meet people who claim to have encountered extraterrestrials. But the show also speaks to all the immigration going on around the world, which is mixing things up. There are so many people from different cultures around nowadays that people are getting confused, disoriented and angry. How we make sense of this new world is the pressing question.”
Art patron Agrabathy shared, “It’s like the other day. I was walking to my car and I heard two girls speaking Chinese. Then I went to Wal-Mart and a guy was speaking Arabic on his cell phone, and two others were speaking an African language as they put M&M candies into their shopping cart.”
Trey Majors said he was confused by the show. “My opinion, as an outsider, is that I have no idea about what is going on in this gallery. I don’t understand it at all.”
Computer science graduate student Ali Asgari stopped in to check things out. “I like the incomprehensibility of the exhibit. I like that it is incomputable. It reminds me of what they call ‘round off,’ errors in mathematics or the idea that the real numbers from 0 to 1 are not countable,” Asgari said.
If you go:
Viewing the show at dusk is recommended. University Art Gallery’s hours are 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday, 11 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Friday. Choreographers Eric Geiger and Anya Cloud will lead dance improvisations based on the show, noon-1 p.m. April 8, 15, 22, 29 and May 6, a final show runs 5:30-7:30 p.m. May 9 at the gallery; appointments to interview exhibit participants can be made at (858) 534-2107 or uag.ucsd.edu