Not-So White Albums

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Installation Art, Conceptual Art, Performance Art or just one man's obsession?

This is what I was thinking after walking into Rutherford Chang's recent show "We Buy White Albums" at iMOCA. Comprised of over 750 first-press copies of the Beatles iconic 1968 "White Album", Chang has not only given us an engaging exhibition, but a glimpse into a collector's mind.

I'm not going to go into all the details of the exhibition here. (For that, you can read Seth Johnson's NUVO review) But when I heard it was coming to iMOCA, I intentionally avoided reading past reviews or searching for information about Chang. Going in, I wanted a clear and unbiased perspective. Besides, I already had a pretty good idea of what I was going to see - so I thought.

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Chang is a collector. He didn't make anything for this exhibition, instead, he's sharing what he's spent the last seven years accumulating. It has been my experience that collectors generally have a particular mindset: search high and low for objects that will enhance their collections, occasionally selling, only to buy something better. I envisioned a display of pristine copies of the White Album, wrapped in plastic or framed under glass and hanging museum style, lovingly protected and guarded from the public.

I missed the mark completely. Chang, as it turns out would have none of it. He collects, actually prefers, the runts of the litter. He acquires the tarnished, manhandled, embellished, soiled (to use an auction catalog term) and defaced copies. "Fair to poor" condition is desirable. He's looking for White Albums that have the fingerprints, and in many cases, physical evidence of the previous owners DNA.

For me, this is what gives the show its meaning. The album covers - personalized with their doodles, coffee stains, writings and God knows what - line the gallery wall, unprotected from the public. Additional plastic wrapped copies are displayed in makeshift, old-fashioned music store album bins in the center of the gallery. Visitors can flip thru the bins, just as I remember doing as a teenager, while a copy of the White Album plays on a 70's era turntable in the background. Chang is there, observing, answering questions and taking photographs of people interacting with his collection.

As the introduction wall indicates, Chang is not finished with the show. You can't help but feel like you're part of a performance piece or raw material for a future exhibition. But what it comes down to for me, the success of the show is the personal experience of searching the collection, the connectivity it gives me with others in the room and deciphering the real and imagined stories behind each copy.

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Rutherford Chang has taken an object that has cross-generational appeal, is multi-sensory, ripe for interpretation, accessible to just about everyone on the planet and bundled it into a tidy little traveling exhibition that is thoroughly engaging and at the very least, fun. So what is it; Installation, Performance, Conceptual Art or just Chang's obsession? At the end of the day, labels really don't matter. This show was tailor made for iMOCA and they pull it off in spectacular fashion.

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