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Everything Is Illuminated: Two New Shows Shed Light on Corners of Civil Unrest That Are Usually Left in the Dark 

Wednesday, Jan 21 2015
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As a teenager in his native Italy, Filippo Minelli participated in the 2001 antiglobalization protests that devolved into violence and bloodshed. With George W. Bush, Tony Blair, and other world leaders meeting in barricaded sections of Genoa, police in the streets used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse Minelli and other G8 protesters, who countered with, among other things, smoke bombs. Genoa resembled a war zone, with fumes and haze choking the air and the lungs of anyone without a mask.

"There was this huge quantity of smoke coming from both directions," says Minelli. "It was the thing that was silencing the scene. You couldn't see anything. It was hiding the people, all the messages. It was also making everything silent in the acoustic aspect. It's almost like fog — it makes everything soft."

As an artist now in his early 30s, Minelli is still throwing colorful smoke bombs — but now they're landing in forests, deserts, and urban spaces of his choosing, and the clouds that emerge fill air with no one else around. No protesters. No police. No witnesses except Minelli. In his new San Francisco photo exhibit, "Nothing to Say," the smoke depicts the silence he saw in Genoa and other protest sites.

By deploying tools of protest into outdoor settings that seem counterintuitive — by staging visual manifestations of absolute quiet with no one around — Minelli turns symbols of activism into something altogether poetic and even spiritual. In Genoa and other sites of activist gatherings, the cacophony of demonstrators' voices creates power in numbers. In Mendocino, one of many locations featured in "Nothing to Say," the power is in the puffs of smoke grenades and in nature's majesty — as though Minelli were channeling a radicalized Ansel Adams.

Minelli's photos, which also feature several San Francisco locations, are connected to his series called "Silence/Shapes," which he began in 2009 to "give a physical shape to silence." Demonstrators around the world often use silence to promote their cause. The tactic might seem counterproductive in an era when the loudest voices seem to get the loudest response. But retreating into silence can elucidate issues that the loudness has obscured. It's cleansing.

That's one thing "Nothing to Say" communicates so well. In each image, Minelli isolates a single smoke bomb in a single setting whose exact location is unannounced. Words don't matter there. What makes the images work are the drifts of smoke — blue, pink, and white clouds that emanate from the bottom of the scene and begin their ascent over lakes, trails, and streets of Southern and Northern California. What gets unleashed, Minelli tells me, "is like a hidden power."

"Nothing to Say" is Minelli's first U.S. exhibit and the inaugural exhibit at 886 Geary Gallery, a space inside Justin Giarla's Tenderloin building that also houses White Walls Gallery and Shooting Gallery. Giarla has given the Bay Area artist Poesia the reins to curate and direct 886 Geary Gallery, and if "Nothing to Say" is an indication of the work to come, Giarla has solidified his Tenderloin address as a destination of new art that demands to be seen.

What's it like to deal with the Ku Klux Klan? San Francisco artist Christy Chan has firsthand experience — both growing up in rural Virginia, where the KKK urged her Chinese immigrant family to leave the area, and on the phone as an adult when she connected with a KKK seamstress to make an authentic KKK robe to use in Chan's video art. Both experiences infuse "Who's Coming to Save You?," an exhibit at Southern Exposure that employs a bit of satire to examine a racist group with a brutal 150-year-long history of cross-burnings, lynchings, and ominous scare tactics.

In As Seen on TV, Chan incorporates the opening footage of the 1980s TV series Knight Rider, which starred David Hasselhoff as a crime-fighter with an intelligent muscle car. KKK members are also called "Knight Riders," and in key scenes of As Seen on TV, Chan substitutes an actor in KKK robes for the Hasselhoff hero, and has him driving audaciously, drinking Champagne from a flute glass, laughing with beautiful women, and posing like he's special. It's caustic and sarcastic make-believe.

More real are the phone conversations that Chan had with a KKK seamstress in Alabama named "Miss Anne," whom Chan hired to make the robe that her actor wears so snugly in As Seen on TV. Chan's exhibition features a line-by-line text of those calls, and it's a surreal blueprint of the banalities and practicalities that go into KKK membership.

Chan: "What we want is just the most regular robe, so when people see the play, they go, 'That is a KKK outfit.'"

Miss Anne: "Then you want white. No stripes."

Chan: "Great."

Miss Anne: "I like plain white myself."

With two actors, Chan is performing a re-enactment of those phone calls at Southern Exposure on Jan. 22. The exhibit lets her, she says, "explore the larger questions of racism. For me, the questions are: What is power? Who gets to have it? And, how is power an illusion? I'm interested in the fact that power and powerlessness are all an illusion — an individual one and a collective one. For me, the humor is an honest response to absurdity. A lot of things about racism aren't rational."

No, they aren't. In Chan's exhibit, art imitates life, and the views it presents of the KKK are both bite-size and biting. Chan downsizes the KKK in a way that is new and entirely appropriate.

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Jonathan Curiel

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