When you enter “Migration”, artist Stephen Nguyen’s installation at Suyama Space, the first thing you see is a wall painted dark matte gray, almost black, pierced by dozen of holes, as if someone had taken a sledgehammer to it (see image above). Fist-sized and larger, the holes reveal steel studs, smashed wallboard, the gallery beyond, glimpses of the architects’ offices behind the gallery, and through their windows, the sky. The holes in the wall are framed by halos of white gypsum dust from the broken wallboard and prints of … feathers?
Walk around the left end of the wall and enter the gallery, which is empty. Although the holes are torn and ragged on this side, there are no rocks or debris on the floor, no evidence of whatever burst through the wall and came out on this side. Except that the rear wall of the room, painted the same dark matte gray, is covered with splotches of gypsum dust like the residue of dozens of small explosions, each framed with the same feathery marks. These same white prints dust the plywood doors that separate the gallery from the offices and when the doors are open, still more prints can be seen on the office partitions and even a few on the window in the rear wall of the building. If you are intrigued by these visual clues and enjoy riddles, read no further until you’ve visited Suyama Space.
There is a story at the core of every work of art and Migration is no exception. Visual artists tell stories by the marks they make on canvas, paper, stone, clay, walls, or ground. Installation art is particularly visceral, as the viewer inhabits the story. Some installations are large objects or stage sets, tableaux that fill a space and freeze a moment. Others are dynamic, with moving objects, projections, or sounds that bring the viewer into an ongoing story. Migration is an epilogue. The space is empty but filled with implied action: in this case, a flock of birds that, in Nguyen’s imagination, flew in through the front door, crashed through the first wall and out the back of the building, passing through other walls and windows. In his talk at the opening of the installation, Nguyen referred to the “history of noise” in the room, and the marks on the walls as the “ghosts of an action.” Looking carefully at the holes in the front wall and the marks on the rear wall, you can imagine the trajectories of individual birds in flight. But the laws of physics have been attenuated in the course of their journey. One wall bears the marks of force and physical decay; the other is intact with only metaphysical shadows of the birds’ passing. Nguyen also toys with the architects whose offices adjoin the gallery.
“I’m pretty certain that it’s not typical that the artwork invades the professional space of the architects,” he says, “But in this case I felt it was important to do so, to convey a continued flight path through the entire building.” The deconstructed wall facing the solid wall (that is, however, transparent to the flight of birds) contrasts the durability and ephemerality of buildings.
Nguyen is not coy about the meaning behind Migration. His artist statement is posted on the gallery wall, clearly explaining the story behind the work. A casual observer or seasoned art aficionado can walk in, read the statement, and understand the work. But an investment of time to experience the space and absorb its details can reward the viewer with a sense of discovery and whimsy. Or you can inhabit the space with your own story. But it’s not possible to take Migration at face value. Peering through the holes in the wall at gypsum dust, feathers, and sky, the viewer is drawn through the surface and into Stephen Nguyen’s imaginary beyond.
Migration by Stephen Nguyen, through August 6 at Suyama Space, 2324 Second Avenue in Seattle, (206) 256-0809 or www.suyamapetersondeguchi.com/art