In the galleries: At Hamiltonian, a birthday celebration of a different sort
 January 30 

Every year since 2011, art professor Naoko Wowsugi has asked her students to give her an experience for her birthday. The request is not an expression of narcissism — well, not entirely — but an assignment, first at Virginia Commonwealth University and more recently at American University. Some of the supposed highlights of this exercise are on display at Hamiltonian Gallery, along with a video of a birthday event choreographed by Whoop Dee Doo, a performance-art duo.

The idea for “Assignment: Happy Birthday” may sound odd, but some of the show’s ingredients are routine. Balloons and confetti litter the floor, piles of gift boxes line the wall and birthday cake appears as both a massive sculptural prop and — in a smaller, softer form — something student Toby Nguyen pushed in her prof’s face. Such gestures are documented in photos or videos, so gallery-goers can watch, for example, Wowsugi’s first listen of the electronic music that Tim Hoyt composed for her.

There’s always one apple-polisher who makes a bigger play than everyone else. Wowsugi was born in Japan, where her family has lived for several generations, but her heritage is Korean. So HwaJin Shin enlisted family and friends to travel to her teacher’s ancestral home in South Korea and plant a ginkgo tree. This gift may have gone literally too far, but shouldn’t art overreach?

The implicit hostility of some students’ responses is understandable, and it didn’t stop with in-your-face cake splats. Randall Lear made his professor into an aesthetic assassin, giving her a bag and asking her to throw it off a roof as often as she liked. It turned out that the bag contained the art he had made as a student. Erin Nanney staged a death ceremony for Wowsugi, at which the teacher’s presence was ignored. This idea is more disturbing if you know (did Nanney?) that mock funerals are among the vicious ploys of Japan’s notorious school bullies.

Wowsugi contributed no art to the show, but it could be argued that she has devised a new version of the venerable artistic practice of employing a workshop of assistants. As a learning experience, though, her assignment seems dubious. Can subversion really be taught in a classroom? Rather than wish her students “happy birthday,” perhaps the professor should echo the motto of onetime Harvard lecturer Timothy Leary: “Turn on, tune in, drop out.”

Source: The Washington Post