Tourist trap

Paradise explores the culture of tourism

When every brand name and TV channel pays lip service to the ability of technology to free us and expand our minds and senses, a show like Paradise in Search of a Future at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center is a powerful wake-up call. Just because you watch the news, hop on a plane or surf the Net, you aren’t necessarily jumping out of the riggings of culture, ideology and preconceived ideas.

Organized by Atlanta College of Art curator Lisa Fischman, Paradise examines virtual and actual travel, and it questions whether we are really going anywhere at all.

The artists in Paradise often suggest that technology can enlighten, as in John (Craig) Freeman’s interactive “Imaging Place.” Viewers use a mouse to move from a large satellite view of the Earth projected onto a gallery wall, to ever smaller and smaller nuggets of “local” information as the satellite view grows more and more intimate. One click yields an image from a Florida news channel documenting waste dumping. Another click activates University of Florida professor Gregory Ulmer talking about some of the conceptual motivations behind “Imaging.”

The installation affords the viewer a feeling of omnipotent mastery of space similar to navigating cyberspace. And behind the fancy techie flourishes is the last thing you’d expect: an environmental message about the specifics of place and a gently phrased agenda reminiscent of the ubiquitous “think globally, act locally” bumper sticker.

On one hand, work like Freeman’s shows the great potential of technology to instruct. Then you have the various computer-dependent artworks in Paradise that were “down” during a recent visit due to technical difficulties. What better metaphor is there for the failures of technology to connect us than computer-based artwork that can’t be accessed?

While some work implies the liberating, informative potential of technology, other work suggests a human-made world is not the guarantee of progress and escape one might think. John Schabel’s “Passengers” is illustrative, showing people trapped within the vessel of their “freedom.” In unsettling, hazy black-and-white photographs, Schabel snaps travelers framed by an airplane window from the tarmac. The work conveys a troubling melancholy as promises of connection are transformed into images of confinement.

A similar idea of traveling without really going anywhere is present in the hilarious travelogues of Taiwanese artist Ben Yu. Yu photographs the same prissy French armchair in various settings around Taiwan, including a roadside market, in front of a modernist housing development or in the middle of a city street. The work is a trenchant commentary on how we impose ourselves and our culture onto the world.

There are heaps of challenging ideas floating around Paradise and an accumulation of the kind of contemporary art that doesn’t often pass through Atlanta.

But the greatest handicap in Paradise may be the decision to put Mark Hogan’s insufferable “The McDonald’s Project” at the entrance to the show. The kind of pretentious, pedantic work that keeps regular folk away from galleries, Hogan’s grotesquely unpleasant installation of vacuum-sealed hamburger patties and French fries from various Buffalo, N.Y.-area McDonald’s is meant to clue us in to the “homogeneity” and “cultural imperialism” of the fast-food giant and convey other big, big, big ideas.

The “McDonald’s” project not only makes one question the wisdom of proceeding deeper into the exhibition, it jeopardizes some of the valid conceptual work in the show by proximity.

Paradise in Search of a Future runs through March 23 at the Contemporary, 535 Means St. 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tues.-Saturday. 404-688-1970. ??