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Yann Novak

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Empty Spaces: Yann Novak at Lawrimore Project

— Review

Yann Novak is the latest Seattle artist to demonstrate what we all know but secretly wish was not the case: that the fastest way to the top of this city’s art scene is to move away.  With recent and current exhibitions at the Henry Art Gallery and Lawrimore Project respectively, Novak’s work has been garnering a lot of positive attention lately (like this interview with Joey Veltkamp and review by Jen Graves).  Last week, I finally had a chance to see Relocation at Lawrimore Project.  I spent the better part of an hour with the exhibition, absorbing his meticulously crafted audio compositions.

I left feeling empty.  For some artists, this might be an indication of failure to communicate; however in Novak’s case, it’s the content of the work.  In the words of the wall text,

“Relocation” explores the emotions and sensations evoked by moving one’s life. The exhibition is a meditation on the artist’s recent move from Seattle to Los Angeles. The three installations make manifest the feelings of leaving one empty space (the former life and memories recently packed), arriving at another empty space (the new life with all its implied potential), as well as providing a record of the transitional moments in between.

Relocation.Vacant reminds me of a photograph by Chicago artist Adam Ekberg from his exhibition Next to Nothing at Platform Gallery last winter, in which a single bubble hovers expectantly in an otherwise empty apartment.

Visually, Novak strikes the right chord with the empty room installation.  As Jen Graves points out in her review,

Do you ever have this experience, where your mind roams back to the way you saw your apartment for the first time?  That’ll be your last view, too.

Less successful in my estimation is the installation Relocation.Dislocation, whose oddly pixelated, too-subtle video struck me as more distracting than “dislocating,” and whose soundtrack, unfortunately, was quieter than the fan on the projector.

Of the three pieces, I think my favorite is Relocation.Mobile, an elegant 2-channel piece of musique concrète derived from recordings made at rest stops along the I-5 corridor, paired with a blurred montage of photos taken out the window.

Yann Novak is a fascinating character.  A few years ago, he seemed to emerge onto the Seattle sound art scene ex nihilo, reviving his father’s long-dormant electroacoustic label Dragon’s Eye Recordings and quickly carving out a career that emphasized collaboration, curating and community almost as much as his compositions themselves—a rare and precious constellation of interests for an artist whose primary medium (digitally altered field recordings) is fundamentally isolating.

What is most striking about this exhibition in one sense, then, is that it’s all about Yann.  Unlike his previous local exhibitions (the Henry, SOIL, etc.) which drew much of their content from dialogues and interactions with other artists, the emphasis here is entirely on his own process, his ideas, and his emotional states.  It’s immersive.  And isolating.  And maybe a little too cold and clinical, as though the artist wants to convince us that he’s over something that he isn’t.

Being between cities is being between communities, and it’s uncertain.  How can we ever be sure that what we’ll get is worth what we had to leave behind?  We can’t.  But if Relocation is any indication, Yann will do fine.

Yann Novak’s Relocation will be installed at Lawrimore Project through June 13 along with Scores (an exhibition of objects to be played as musical scores) curated by Volume.