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Four planar plywood structures are arranged on the gallery floor, lined up in order of ascending size and aligned to the left (Fig 16). 1 foot to 4 feet in height, the units may be described as proportionately small, medium, large, and extra large. In plan, the supporting panels appear as mirrored T-shapes, but they incrementally separate with the extension of a perpendicular plane fastened between each module. The constructions of strictly vertical rectangles suggest scalability and portability in form while remaining ambiguous in function. Fabricated according to the artist’s specifications, the pieces materialize illustrated diagrams, and as such, exist both as virtual models and concrete iterations. In addition to manual assembly, their reproduction depends upon the standard offerings of home improvement retailers, mirroring the mass-produced stuff of domestic infrastructure: laminated sheets of processed wood, paint, and imported hardware. The economic efficiencies of flat-packed furniture are also adopted to formal ends, further pointing to the blurring of factory and home. Matched to chroma key green,14 the paint coating one side of each center plane evokes the field of a ping-pong table or a hue commonly used by the architect Le Corbusier. Often combined with yellow and red in vibrant interiors, it also colors the “zone” of the milieu, or environment, in his “Poem of the Right Angle.”15

As posed by the title of this piece, Harry Houdini’s inability to escape death may be viewed as a question rather than a biological fact.16 After all, the limits of the human body do not preclude the extension of life by other means. In excerpts from “Lost at Sea,” a collection of writing by Kevin featured here, self-destructive ambition serves as the backdrop to expressions of desire for a robot son—an heir to human waste and dysfunction.
The Odyssey is a very long poem about a guy who just wants to go home. Problem is, he pissed off the divine embodiment of the ocean, and the ocean happens to be his only ticket back since the man lives on an island. Or maybe that whole thing is just a cover for the fact people sucked at sailing back then—after all this was some 2700 years ago. At any rate, he has a lot of random encounters that go very wrong since this is a story, and it would be very dull indeed if it were all smooth sailing.

         There’s one scene where Odysseus has to pass an island inhabited by the two Sirens, whose song tempts any man who passes by to stay entranced until his death. Odysseus has his sailors plug up their ears to mute the song, and then decides for whatever reason that it’s a good idea to hear it for himself. So he has the men tie him to the ship’s mast and tells them to ignore him until they’re far away from the Sirens. They go toward the island, and to absolutely nobody’s surprise, Odysseus immediately caves in (since he is, after all, just a man). He begs to be untied, but the ship keeps sailing. It’s a curious moment, because even though his vessel keeps him from getting what he wants at the moment (to great distress), it nevertheless brings him one step closer to home. I can’t say I know what he was thinking, but I’m sure a part of him was relieved. Because he knew that once he heard the Sirens’ song, he would try to stay with them forever, doomed to never return home—he knew that, only bound, could his whims be suppressed for his own sake. In passing off responsibility, no longer was he able to destroy himself.

. . .

         I want a robot son. Because I don’t want humankind to end with humans.

Tragic figures, the North American Red and Yellow-Bellied Cranes spend their lives building environments they can never inhabit.

         It was during the summer when I had first encountered three of them in my hometown. Quietly at rest, they dwelled in an open field, knowing the task that lay ahead. And in that moment, even as their heads were bowed, they remained mighty, dignified figures. As time went, I could see them hard at work, tirelessly moving material through rain, sleet and snow. Entities themselves already monumental, already a testament to generations of progress and development—and by their actions they render themselves mere tools! Here our industrious cranes build structures that when completed, will have no room for them. Perpetual outsiders, there is no use for them in the environments only they have the capacity to construct. And in this very act of construction, they unmake their world.

. . .

         I want a robot son. Because I want him to see the IKEA that I grew up in.

Last winter, I found myself attempting to make Emeril Lagasse’s meatball soup. The difficulty level was listed as easy on his website, so I gave it a shot. Among other ingredients, the recipe called for “1/2 cup ditalini or other small pasta shape for soups.” The pasta was to be added as the last step, after cooking down the broth and simmering the meatballs. I had a bag of alphabet-shaped pasta weighing in at about 10 ounces, or a bit over a cup. It looked like there was plenty of broth, and I was concerned that adding just a half cup of pasta would produce a sad, thin soup. So, I dumped the whole bag into the pot instead. This was a mistake. The pasta expanded, and I ended up with alphabet stew.

    I began pouring the jumbled-up mess into serving bowls and wondered where the concept of alphabet pasta came from. According the Wikipedia, the jury is out. It is impossible to pin down the creation of alphabet pasta to a single event or person. What I did find, is that noodles cut into letter shapes most commonly take the form of the Latin alphabet. I saw one picture of Cyrillic pasta, but had difficulty finding Korean, Arabic, or any other writing systems. I was deep into the rabbit hole and started Googling other types of script. To my surprise, I learned that there are written forms of sign language known as SignWriting.

    In SignWriting, each symbol represents a gesture, to include handshapes, facial expressions, and movements. Each symbol is placed in a notional box. Moving from box to box, one reads a temporal progression. Within each box, however, the individual symbols do not read linearly as most other languages do. Rather, the symbols must be read contextually, as each denotes a movement and relative position in the body. Together, the signs in each box form a cohesive whole, which translate into the physical motions being made. This has all kinds of wonderful applications for my alphabet stew. A given spoonful of a SignWriting based pasta could have even the most seasoned contortionist’s head spinning, wondering how they’d make seven more arms and a third face appear.

    At this point, looking into my bowl of what now appeared to be more of an alphabet goulash, the individual letters started to disappear into a mass. It wouldn’t have mattered if they were of the Latin alphabet or any other script. Each spoonful became a mass of indeterminant squiggles – tomatoey, with a hint of basil.

. . .

    I would like to take my robot son to a parade. I would probably explain that as parades become more frequent, they are more likely to mark regular intervals in time, rather than accomplishments.

14. Chroma key colors are calibrated to aid “keying” in visual effects post-production such that forms can be isolated or layered with other content by rendering specific color ranges transparent.

15. Le Corbusier, Le poème de l'angle droit, Éditions Tériade, 1955.

16. Harry Houdini was born on March 24, 1874 in Budapest, Hungary and died on October 31, 1926 in Detroit, USA. (Kalush, William, and Larry Sloman. The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America’s First Superhero. Atria Books, 2006.)

17. Decepticons are a race of robots and the primary antagonists in the Transformers universe. (Bay, Michael, director. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. Paramount Pictures, 2009.)

Kevin Zhu currently lives and works in San Diego, USA.

Artwork courtesy of the artist.