2009, A Space Odyssey–Ronnie Bass at Marginal Utility


The multitalented Brooklyn-based artist Ronnie Bass has brought his video/installation The Astronomer, Part 1: Departure From Shed, to Marginal Utility–the newest gallery to open at 319A N. 11th St. aka the Vox Building  (mercifully, Marginal Utitlity turned out to be quite useful–it is on the second floor, giving a nice respite as we climbed toward 3 and 4).

Ronnie Bass, The Astronomer. Bass comforts a fearful friend afraid of the risky search for utopia
Ronnie Bass, The Astronomer. Bass comforts a fearful friend afraid of the risky search for utopia

Bass, who is also a musician and composer, plays himself as a sad sack everyman, part of a group groping for a better life or maybe religious salvation. The tone reminds me of Moon, the recent movie in which Sam Rockwell plays a sad, lonely, cloned corporate pawn on the dark side of the moon, and also 2001: A Space Odyssey–with a Hal-ish disembodied voice-over giving orders. The mournful, frustrated utopianism of space exploration permeates Bass’ short suite of videos.

Bass, the astronomer/group leader searches the sky for a sign of the right moment. He is holed up in a shed with a woman and someone cowering under a blanket. Bass’ pulling out his guitar and singing is a ’60s moment, a throwback to another utopian time when fear spurred the desire for a better world. The mix of synthesizer and guitar seems like another metaphor for what is happening here–hi-tech, lo-tech, the future and times past, spacy and earthy.  But the search here is not for escape to the countryside, which is already besmirched by Big ‘n’ Large Industries (yeah this also made me think of Wall-E, too). Rather, it’s an escape to the skies. The departure is not marked by heroic eagerness or bravery, the usual approach of final frontier movies, but rather by fear and dejection, which is how it is for most people forced to make a change. It’s the story of human migration compressed into 9 minutes in a brief series of scenes that move quickly, skillfully communicating the situation. The artist projects two more parts to this piece.

Ronnie Bass (as the Astronomer) in his video installation Astronomer Part 1: Departure from Shed
Ronnie Bass (as the Astronomer) in his video installation Astronomer Part 1: Departure from Shed

The video is excellent for its pacing; for its open, metaphorical approach to storytelling; for its sound track and the music. It’s charming, rich with ideas, and moving. What a great beginning for this gallery and, on a more personal note, for our First Friday adventures!

Also part of the installation is a beautiful fountain inside the gallery that will grow and change as Bass assembles more materials from local yard sales and discount stores. On the night of the opening, it already was an imposing presence. The cosmic lava-lamp-like reflection from the water to the wall was a happy surprise, said director of Marginal Utility Yuka Yokoyama and co-founder David Dempewolf, who was a classmate of Bass’ in grad school.

Ronnie Bass, the fountain as it appeared opening night
Ronnie Bass, the fountain as it appeared opening night

Bass, in his role of the astronomer, will hold a celebratory musical performance upon the completion of the fountain (I’ll add the time and date when I get it: here it is–Friday, Dec. 4, 7 pm and again at 9 pm).

Bass is hardly an emerging artist. The native Texan (MFA Columbia, 2006, and BFA University of North Texas, 2003), among his many shows, had a solo show in 2009 in Germany at Art Forum Berlin and in 2008 in New York at I-20 Gallery. Other exhibits in 2009 include Mike Smith at the Building, a screening curated by Michael Smith, in Germany (Michael Smith’s own work has a similar ordinary Joe quality); in the show White Noise at James Cohan in New York; and in Time Out of Joint, Whitney ISP Curatorial Exhibition at The Kitchen. His musical compositions include the musical score for Rikrit Tiravanija’s Hugo Boss Prize exhibition at Serpentine Gallery in London in 2005.

The surprise reflection from the fountain's water twinkled on the wall, a moving mandala
The surprise reflection from the fountain’s water twinkled on the wall, a moving mandala

Outside the gallery door were the first two editions of the publication machete, one of several efforts now underway in Philadelphia to bring a more theoretical cast to writing about art here. Dempewolf and his wife Yokoyama, both Basekamp affiliates, are behind this publication along with Alexi Kukuljevic. The couple has just moved the gallery from the Basekamp building on Chestnut Street (where they opened back in August), hoping that 319A N. 11th St. would provide the synergy of multiple galleries, said Yokoyama, who was happy about the numbers of people coming through on First Friday. The building is already home to Vox Populi, AHN/VHS and a number of other galleries, and as Roberta mentioned in her Weekly piece, this breakthrough stacked gallery space with hip contemporary art has relocated the locus of action for First Fridays away from Old City.

To January 10, 2010.
Marginal Utility Inc.
Location: 319 N. 11th Street, Second Floor, Philadelphia, PA 19107
Phone: 917-355-4487
Gallery hours: Fridays 5-8pm, Saturdays 12-5pm, Sundays 12-5pm

performance by the artist Friday, Dec. 4, 7 pm and again at 9 pm.


first friday november 2009, marginal utility, ronnie bass



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