When the flight attendant directs your attention to the front of the aircraft for the obligatory spiel about oxygen masks and cushions turning into flotation devices, most of us tune it out.
As we do air travel itself.
Flying has become such a pervasive part of our lives – even for people who rarely do it, thanks to depictions in popular culture – that in many ways it has become a series of rote exercises, all the way from security to baggage claim.
But artists like to shake things up. In "Air Travel," a new exhibition opening Thursday at Corridor 2122, eight artists offer personal views of flying. Some of the artworks take you back to a time when flying was rare, glamorous and adventuresome – a time when air travel represented freedom, notes curator Julia Bradshaw, a Corridor 2122 member and photography professor at California State University, Fresno.
Other works in the show are triggered by today's flying experience, Bradshaw explains: a time inspired by data and schedules, anxiety and fear, surveillance, boredom and the mundane.
The exhibition opens from 5 to 8 p.m. with a reception for ArtHop, the monthly open house of galleries and studios in the downtown and Tower District areas.
Bradshaw has pulled together an impressive lineup of artists that, frankly, far exceeds the scope of most ArtHop exhibitions. Three are local members of Corridor 2122. Five boast substantial national and international resumes.
The biggest and most attention-grabbing piece in the show is an 8-by-12-foot vinyl installation depicting a luggage carousel by t.w.five, an artist duo consisting of Brazilian and Swedish artists Paula Pereira and Pernilla Andersson, now based in San Francisco. The artists, who created a series of works with a transportation theme, pride themselves on using a medium best known for advertising signage and putting a fine-art spin on it with hand-cut designs.
Another prominent name is Aaron Koblin, a digital media artist with a work in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, whose "flight-patterns" piece in the Corridor 2122 exhibition uses data from the Federal Aviation Administration to create animations of flight traffic patterns and density. (His mother lives in Clovis.)
The artist with possibly the most interesting back story is Hasan Elahi, an American citizen born in Bangladesh, whose work examines issues of surveillance, simulated time, transport systems, and borders and frontiers. He is debuting a new work in the Fresno show titled "Brasilia," a two-channel video piece comprised of animated still images collected across a span of a decade in more than 100 different airports in more than 50 countries.
"Fresno gets to see it first," he says cheerily in a phone interview from his office at the University of Maryland, where he is an art professor and director of the Digital Cultures and Creativity Program.
Elahi, whose work has been featured at the Centre Georges Pompidou, Sundance Film Festival, Kassel Kulturbahnhof and the Venice Biennale, made a splash with his work "Tracking Transience," which resulted from a 2002 brush with U.S. immigration agents when he was returning from an art exhibition in Senegal.
He was detained as a terrorist after an anonymous tip, which he figures came from owners of his Tampa, Fla., storage unit. (He had paid his final month's rent in person on Sept. 12, 2001.) After passing nine polygraph tests and a battery of interviews, he was released, but with no formal charges, he couldn't even get a letter clearing his name.
Rather than remain private about the incident, Elahi decided to incorporate it into his art – and to turn the tables on the FBI. The result was the ongoing "Tracking Transience" project (available online at trackingtransience.net), in which he publicly logs his every move in the form of location- and time-stamped photos, bank records and flight logs. Among his documentary acts: taking photos of the airplane meals he's consumed over the years.
The project got Elahi noticed as an artist, and even landed him a 2008 interview on Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report."
He named "Brasilia" after Brazil's famed planned capital city, which from above is shaped like an airplane. Elahi has long been interested in airports as ambiguous, surrogate, portal-like spaces that exist in a sort of no-man's-land territory. (If you stay inside an airport in transit to somewhere else, have you really "visited" that city?)
As an artist, he hopes that some viewers extend that line of thought to pertinent political topics, such as the ambiguous status of the prison at Guantanamo Bay, say, another place that lacks a clear-cut geographical status. But the piece works on several levels, he says. The images of different airports on the two video screens are so small they almost become textural. The sameness of those images leads to a feeling of disorientation.
"As the images slowly scroll, it's almost like a bird trying to flap its wing," Elahi says.