May Sun was born in Shanghai, China, spent her formative years in Hong Kong and has lived in California since 1971. By way of introduction to her installation at ArtPace, she says, “I live in Los Angeles. I spend 85% of my time in cars.” Her work offers a steady stream of dualities. It has both California and San Antonio components; a large video screen with stock footage of an aerial view of Los Angeles traffic at night in a black room and three small monitors in a white room showing videotape filmed by the artist since she began her residency in San Antonio in January. In the adjoining black and white rooms the viewer finds somber and comedic questions, specific and universal references, public and private issues
How Am I Driving is consistent with the ambitious public art commissions for which the artist is noted. While she has collaborated with video artists in the past Sun has, for the first time, shot and edited her own footage. To prepare for the White Room ArtPace staff members drove her along the highways and byways of the city in search of cars and vans with the words “How am I driving? Call 1-800-___-____.” She visually recorded their search, then taped the conversations as her collaborators called the numbers of those vehicles and reported in detail the driver’s every twist and turn. “I’ve always wanted to do this,” says the artist. While the idea might have first occurred as a prank, she quickly moves beyond the obvious, she says:
“How am I driving?” becomes a metaphor for “How am I living?”
The Idea that life equals movement and the passing of time.
That nothing is ever perfectly still, that stillness is an illusion.
The river of lights produced by moving automobile headlights
On crowded freeways in a world where speed is increasingly an achievable goal changes into a contemporary metaphor for the journey of life.
In the darker half of the installation, the moody film of Los Angeles makes the freeways appear as a pulsing red-hot lava flows across a dark screen. Visitors hear May Sun ask the questions:
Am I speeding full ahead?
Am I stalled in the fast lane?
Did I miss the stop sign?
Am I going places?
Is life the ultimate time based art?
The questions commence with a light touch, but by the end their intent has clearly transcended an interest in traffic flow:
Do I have to many regrets?
Am I too sensitive?
Do You like to drive people crazy?
“How Am I Driving?” is according to May Sun, “a prankster-flavored media performance installation with a dark, mysterious underbelly.”
Trajectory: How am I?
Henceforth, when man is for once overcome by the horror of alienation and the world fills him with anxiety, he looks up (right or left, as the case may be) and sees a picture. Then he sees that the I is contained in the world, and that there really is no I, and thus the world cannot harm the I, and he calms down; or he sees that the world is contained in the I and that there really is no world, and thus the world cannot harm the I, and he calms down. And when man is overcome again with anxiety, he looks up and sees a picture; and whichever he sees, it does not matter, either the empty “I” is stuffed full of world or it is submerged in the flood of the world, and he calms down. But the moment will come, and it is near, when man, overcome by horror, looks up and in a flash sees both pictures at once. And he is seized by a deeper horror. -Martin Buber, I and Thou
The rectangle of open space cut into the tall bamboo hedge that marks the front perimeter of ArtPace is a frame of reference for viewing May Sun’s video installation Trajectory: How Am I Driving? Through the opening, you are referred directly to a similarly proportioned (though much smaller) windowpane, and through this pane to a wall with yet another rectangle cut through it. The window is the one rectangle of the three that is a permanent part of the building, and therefore refers to both directions (inside and outside). This windowpane also possesses a longevity over the cut bamboo and the installation in the gallery: it extends deeper into the past and presumably into the future than either, and therefore, is the here and now (the ever-present). It anchors the more temporary components of the installation. Inside ArtPace, there is a moment as you approach the entrance to May Sun’s space when you have the opportunity to pause and look both to the right through the window (what rectangle of reference lies beyond the bamboo hedge?) and to the left, through the opening (what is that black room beyond this white room I see?).
Inside the white room, the room of daylight consciousness, three head-high video monitors spaced equidistantly along the right-hand wall display tape loops of a phone-equipped car following vehicles with ‘1-800-How Am I Driving?’ signs on their bumpers and rear panels. Each sequence is laced with humor as carloads of gleeful artists accompanying Sun set up earnest telephone operators with reports of excessive turning or excellent parking, and questions such as ‘Why do fish trucks always say fish on them?’ This part of the installation hints at issues of cultural alienation and integration. Watching the tapes, you might ask yourself questions such as: Do I understand the culture I’m surrounded by? Does the homogeneity of this culture make me feel secure or uncomfortable? Do I work in a dead end job? It also serves as a light and humorous counterpoint to the night side of the exhibition in the next room. You must enter this room with your head bowed slightly (if you are six-foot-one), as the entrance is shorter than standard American door height. As you go through the portal, this rite of accommodating the off-sized opening signals an entry into an alien world.
Once in, you are overwhelmed by a video of nighttime aerial views of the Hollywood freeway projected on a nearly theatre-sized screen. The scale of the image serves to disconnect you from the earth. A disembodied voice intoning a list of existential questions completes the sensation of vertigo as you are disconnected from your body as well:
Am I speeding full ahead?
Am I causing congestion?
Am I accident-prone?
Am I missing out in some of life’s big moments?
Is the control panel lit up?
Is there only the future to look forward to?
Am I no longer young?
Am I a fish out of water?
Am I a stranger in a stranger land?
Am I losing my mind?
Am I finding inner peace?
Who the hell do I think I am?
Why do I like animals better than people?
Do I always have to be careful?
Can I kick back and let fate take over?
Will you cry me a river?
Am I just right?
Does being in the carpool lane make you feel superior?
Am I of smiling countenance?
Am I accommodating?
Is beauty a thing of the past?
Is truth always on the move?
Am I going to be spanning a century?
Is the world going to end?
Have you had more than your share of fairweather friends?
Do you not see the forest for the trees?
Is the world my oyster?
Is the white zone for loading and unloading only?
If I am the Other, then what are you??
The rush of the freeway and the stop-and-go traffic metaphors quickly yield to the speed at which life unfolds in time. The vehicle merges with the body and negotiating traffic is strangely like navigating a life. The aerial view of the moving images further confounds the distinctions between asphalt conduits of consumption, fumes and tail-lights, and the inner body flow of blood, consumption and electricity. A rearview mirror attached to one wall of the gallery reflects the moving images back towards a four-by-seven inch slot in the wall which separates the two rooms, thus linking where you are and where you have been with an appropriately tiny window of hindsight. Literary references, song lyrics, and fake platitudes are strung together in the interrogative format and transformed into hallucinogenic bumper stickers. Touchingly, a completely human vulnerability pushes through the rhetorical rhythm: Do I always have to be careful? Then May Sun’s voice, as if you are startled to find her standing there alone in the darkness, asks the question that makes you stop: If I am the Other, then what are you?
Sun’s litany of questions sounds uncannily like those attributed by Martin Buber to his pet cat. When he looks into its eyes, the cat queries:
Can it be that you mean me?
Do you actually want that I should not merely do tricks for you?
Do I concern you?
Am I there for you?
Am I there?
What is that coming from you?
What is that around me?
What is it about me?
What is that?!?
Both Buber and May Sun quiz the cosmos ably, but the existential predicament remains. For it is one thing to confront the quotidian absurd by playing with a car phone, quite another to meet your demons when the sun descends and your only reference point is the irregular black horizon fretting under a psychedelic sky. You can beseech the sky with countless questions, but if it’s answers you want, who you gonna call?
¹Condensed from May Sun’s original list of sixty-seven questions.
²Martin Buber, I and Thou (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1956), p. 145.