A frame from Ziyang Wu's 2016 digital video "The Story of the Pig."

Chasing ghosts

New work from MCAD faculty members in the school's 2016 biennial

Institutions of higher learning must look both forward and backward. To prepare a new generation to take charge in the world, professors instill students with the knowledge of generations past.

Organizers of the 2016 Minneapolis College of Art and Design Faculty Biennial, the campus-wide exhibition that welcomed students back to school for the fall semester, encouraged the 50 or so participating MCAD faculty members to look back, posing this question: “What artistic ghosts are you chasing?”

For studio arts professor Brad Jirka, answering that question meant tipping his hat to artistic forebears — “from the Futurist and Dadaist to the Minimal and ‘shock’ artist” — but also crediting some of the craftsmen who passed on the technical know-how that goes into creations like a 3-D printed interactive sculpture that, constructed of orange plastic and a shiny tin can, looks something like a toy nuclear reactor for a Fisher Price-scale city. Press a button, watch the digital timer count down and, at zero, the spherical “reactor” blows out a cloud of smoke — cute, maybe, but also creepy four years after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster.

Poet and artist Andrea Jenkins, an adjunct faculty member, name-checks Eryka Badu and Harriet Tubman, whom she reflected on while creating a mixed-media installation about the intersection of black women, commerce and social justice, a piece also inspired by a December 2014 Black Lives Matter protest that closed stores at the Mall of America. A collage of black celebrities and cut up shopping bags displayed next to a podium piled with handbags and purses hints at the two ways to read the phrase “Bag Lady” in the piece’s title: the empowered consumer in the mall or the victim of harsher economic realities on the street.

Not every participating faculty member makes it so clear which “artistic ghosts” she is chasing, but it doesn’t always matter, as in the case of two very strong video works that would stand out in any context.

Jonathan Kaiser’s “River/Object #1” is a short video shot underwater on a rocky streambed that shows a plaster object disintegrating in the swift-flowing current. It evokes the weathering of ancient monuments, and the minnows that flit into the camera’s view and then disappear seem like a metaphor for nature’s essential disinterest in human ambition.

An overhead shot of a different river — either in the fall or early spring, judging from the bare trees and snow-covered banks — flows across five video monitors laid next to each other on the gallery floor. Then, a human character appears in the water: artist Ben Moren who, fully clothed, floats on his back downstream. On a flat-screen monitor, Moren is about the size of a videogame character, and his recorded performance becomes about mediating between the digital and natural worlds using his own body.

Andy DuCett’s “Walk with Me?” is a much sillier mix of video and performance. DuCett is recorded standing in a storefront window, mirroring the walks of passersby on a busy urban street. Many don’t notice, but when they do catch on to his stalking routine, DuCett’s pedestrian prey typically respond with a laugh. It’s art that creates brief, human, genuine moments.

Kate Casanova’s “Planetismal Spectra” is an irresistible object. Maybe the soft-scuplture planetoid — a round mass of white rope, black fabric and shiny silver plastic suspended from the gallery ceiling by a thick umbilical cord — exerts its own gravity, or maybe the cycloptic video screen embedded in the sculpture has a hypnotic effect. It’s both attractive and curiously repulsive, like a plushie monster.

Running in conjunction with the biennial, the Faculty Forum Series of lectures, screenings and performances is a chance to check in on the work of MCAD professors like Frenchy Lunning, director of the annual Mechademia Conference on Asian popular culture. Lunning’s Sept. 16 presentation, “Enchanting Ghosts: Ballet manga of the 24 nengumi,” examines the influence of the Year 24 Group of Japanese women cartoonists who, born in the immediate aftermath of World War II, would in the 1970s push the boundaries of emotional expression in girls comics, known as shôjo manga.

Closing out the series on Sept. 22 is “Reflectors,” a collaboration between MCAD adjunct faculty member Sam Hoolihan, Brute Heart lead singer Crystal Myslajek and sound artist John Marks described as a “multi-projection and experimental sound performance.” Marks joined Myslajek and the rest of Brute Heart when, in 2012, they composed and performed live a score for the silent German Expressionist film “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” drawing huge crowds to the final edition of that summer’s Walker Art Center music and movies program. “Reflectors” previously screened late last year during the MONO NO AWARE experimental cinema series in Brooklyn.

2016 MCAD Faculty Biennial

Where: Minneapolis College of Art and Design, 2501 Stevens Ave. S.

When: Through Sept. 25

Info: mcad.edu, 874-3700