Julian Hou: Milman Parry’s Waiting Room Rhapsody
by Steffanie Ling
We do not look forward to sitting in waiting rooms. What amenities are in place to abate our boredom? An inoffensive selection of general interest magazines await captive bodies, confined minds. Articles about burning fat, supernatural encounters, sugary cocktail recipes, a life-affirming human interest piece. Oh god. How time slips like a slippery and bone-addled fish. Nothing to sink our teeth into anyway. Julian Hou’s solo exhibition at Artspeak, Milman Parry’s Waiting Room Rhapsody is a waiting room constructed against this purgatory of waiting, because we are stripped of knowing for what it is that we wait. A room with artwork is as much a testing ground for patience, a site prior to some sort of vaguely imminent, Beckettian non-arrival, be it diagnosis, consultation, or meaning of the work itself.
But still, we wait. In a freshly carpeted gallery, five red office chairs, unchained from their imagined desks, are provided to seat, swivel and ferry ourselves between artworks displayed under halos of LED along the walls of the space. These chairs have a very forlorn quality. They never had desks to begin with, and are forced to wander the volume of the gallery, never to meet their white collar. The carpet hinders the mobility of those plastic wheels, and the sound of their travel. Some of the chairs wear woven patches expressing their inner purposes: “Progress Not Perfection,” “Embrace The Grind” and “Pressure makes Diamonds.” Progress, grinding and pressure do not suit the mood of this waiting room – for these chairs, a purgatory.
Hou’s 12 works on paper (all 2017) are applied to a white fabric, which is pulled taut by zig-zag lacing to a rounded metal frame. Quarters wrap around the curve of the white metal tubing, like a pet ladybug, an abandoned piece of gum or the deposit for a handful of old candy. Each of these abstract compositions is illuminated by a halo of LED, a spotlight, the quintessential indication that you’re on. In this instance, they’re all on at once, a chorus! Each of these works is simultaneously delivering, but the individual lighting implores you to make a selection. At a glance, most of these works resonate optically as abstract, but as some of Hou’s titles suggest, some are vaguely figurative, such as Splayed Clover, which calls the eye to the shape of the plant (not the plant itself). Blood Segment rhetorically privileges a section of red that covers the most surface area of the drawing (albeit by a small margin). Coping Style and The piano bar at the centre of my mind are calculated non-referential compositions. The piano bar’s near-parabolic shapes seem to be fitted into a logic of columns interrupted by the dominant swerving shape that has its own sectional logic. Coping Style calls nothing to mind at all and it’s really much better, sincere, that way.
Recently, I have found that abstraction is often as flippant and inoffensive as dated magazines, but included in the field of its installation, the composition becomes complicated by what’s around it. Milman Parry’s Waiting Room Rhapsody implies composition of the aural kind as well. In his essay “Experimental Music” (1955) I read John Cage’s finger wagging: “We have eyes as well as ears, and it is our business while we are alive to use them.”1 And this has, for me, also conjured the opening of David Joselit’s text “Painting Beside Itself” (2009). Joselit starts off quoting Martin Kippenberger saying to Warhol: “Simply to hang a painting on the wall and say that it’s art is dreadful. The whole network is important! Even spaghettini… When you say art, then everything possible belongs to it. In a gallery that is also the floor, the architecture, the color of the walls,”2 because it asks for our sensorial faculties to mingle with our worldly ones. Cage’s distinction between noise and music are a pair intertwined in contention, mirroring that of abstraction and figuration.3 Cage argued that music results from formal apparatuses such as notation, measures, bona fide instruments, while noise comes from the activity of sounds from nature, life and silence, so the composer of sound (rather than music) is an “organizer of sound” who is “faced with the entire field of sound, but also with the entire field of time.”4
Since aural activity always measures temporality, Hou’s five tracks composed for this exhibition (a score is often characteristic of his installations)5 play for the waiting and emphasize the passing of time. Stretched tones formally mimic the droll of seemingly suspended time, but still minutes descend in spite of our feelings of inertia. How does this assertion of activity attest to the stillness of works on paper? Much like old magazines, they are there to take up our time and space, which is all we ask for while waiting. It’s a debasing thing to say about art: “It’s taking up precious space and occupying my precious time!” However, in a waiting room, there is no such preciousness or possibility for Productivity, and there, we are grasping at opportunities to occupy physical and mental space-time. I realize, as a critic, that it’s a simplistic, or obvious, conclusion to draw; I hope it’s the sobering kind of conclusion that is so simplistic that we initially had overlooked its necessity.
Thankfully, Hou’s installations are never simplistic or obvious. How could I do justice to all the forms present? In writing this review of a solo exhibition, I admit that I had thought to approach it as a group show, but to do so would mean dissecting tones and shapes from their deeply networked operations. Two-dimensional abstraction (not to mention the craft and sculptural element of the frames that at once recede into and enhance the presentation of the drawings), experimental music, classical poetry scholarship, and even office furniture and architectural intervention (the carpet) are all so individually attached to discourses of design, literature, art and music that a holistic approach risks a fragmented or plain evocation of discourses. This exhibition presented itself as the task of grasping all the different elements at play, but they can’t be rigorously separated in order to understand them in chorus. I take Julian Hou to be an organizer; an organizer of sounds, shapes, furniture, architectural accents.