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After seven months of collective quarantine, leaving the house to see art again feels as precarious as departing from Plato’s Cave. For tentative gallery-goers concerned about enclosed spaces, artists Mike Saijo and Flora Kao offer an open air, narrated canoe ride during which visitors encounter artworks installed under the Ballona Lagoon Bridge in the Venice canals. Throughout the exhibition, titled Under The Bridge—one of the MAIDEN LA biennial’s approximately 75 expansive, inclusive, and unconventional art experiences—Saijo serves as tour guide and steersperson. His presence functions as a performative hook, bringing continuity to a setting where natural elements, like the fluctuating tide of the ocean, temporarily submerge parts of the show underwater. Indeed, the slow decay of the artworks as a result of the outdoor setting is integral to the vitality of the exhibition; across the work, ancient symbols meld with organic materials to revel in the transformative cycle of creation and destruction.
As Saijo steers the boat, he shares stories from East Asian mythology and Indigenous rituals. He goes on to tell personal anecdotes about his travels and medicinal ventures with hallucinogens—narration that imbues the artworks with a spiritual curiosity not readily apparent at first glance. An original musical composition by Ko Takemura plays from a hidden speaker near the bridge’s wall, echoing sounds of seagulls, gongs, and percussion. The resonating acoustics make this soundtrack difficult to distinguish as it blends with the swish of canoe oars, birds swooping by, and the artist’s steady voice. The gentle rock of the boat, reflective light from the water, and vital shade under the bridge enliven the sensory experience of the exhibition and emphasize the fluidity of the journey.
In the middle of the canal, Saijo’s artwork Micro Fish Island (all works 2020) comprises dozens of found vintage porcelain watercolor bowls from China, set in a circle on a large, rectangular concrete structure. Saijo encourages participants to grab a small bowl—designed in the shape of a fish eating its own tail—though grasping for the object when the tide is high could easily cause the boat to capsize. On the underside of each bridge abutment, parallel installations of a large painted panel by Saijo, paired with an organic plant sculpture by Kao, emerge from the water. In Kao’s Sacred Grove, dried bamboo stalks rise out of a stained urn with small pieces of orange and yellow silk attached to the stalks like leaves, as if the urn’s ashes sprouted new synthetic life. Saijo’s painted panel Q|O Map appears antiquated—tiny collaged portraits of Japanese and Chinese colonizers encircle a globe and the phrase “Quantum Ocean” appears in English and Mandarin across an expanse of gray-blue. Saijo explains that the QO is a vast body of water within ourselves and that the word “formosaoka,” written at the bottom of the panel, refers to Indigenous psychedelics lost to a colonialist history, which he sought out during a residency in Taiwan. As the boat circles back around and returns to the shore, and Saijo’s stream-of-conscious storytelling concludes, the momentary sensation of having journeyed and returned from an ethereal world lingers with surprising resonance. Under The Bridge makes a hard-to-map terrain, in which mind-altering substances meet ancient mythologies, fleetingly tangible and legible, even if the experience reverts right back to the ineffable soon after it ends.
Mike Saijo and Flora Kao: Under The Bridge runs from September 4–October 31 (tours end October 4) as part of MAIDEN LA (Ballona Lagoon Lighthouse Bridge, Los Angeles, CA, 90292).