.Silicon Alleys: Winter Fest Installation Invigorates Empty Space

International collaboration invigorates an abandoned space

Six Ukrainian soldiers with pixelated faces have activated an abandoned sculptural space previously closed off to the public. A landmark international collaboration between San Jose Jazz Winter Fest and the Am I Jazz? Festival in Kyiv will bring the artist who painted the soldiers to San Jose. Art has healed abandonment yet again.

Unidentified Figures by Lesia Khomenko is just one component of the festival, retitled this year as Winter Fest: Counterpoint with Ukraine, which started last week and continues through the March 3-4 weekend. A multidisciplinary endeavor including dance, contemporary art, DJ sets and hangout nights, the fest also includes indie Ukrainian films screened at 3Below Theaters. Khomenko will give a free talk about her work at 4pm on March 4 in the San Jose Jazz Break Room.

The fenced-off sculptural space in question, titled Unzipped, a swirling serpentine achievement, came to San Jose via London’s Hyde Park and then Toronto, where its creators, the Danish firm Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), were involved with local projects, just as they are here. Unzipped sits in the parking lot between Anno Domini and the former Valley Title Building, where San Jose Jazz is headquartered. The property developers installed Unzipped a couple years back, spewing all the same buzzwords locals have heard since the ’80s, stuff like “revitalize” and “vibrancy,” yet they’ve let it sit empty for nearly two years now. It only opened once, during last year’s Cinequest festival, when anyone curious enough to wander over realized what an amazing creative space it could be, especially the interior portion.

“It’s really cathedral-like,” said Barbara Goldstein, an independent public art curator who helped organize Unidentified Figures. “It’s beautiful,” she said. “It’s actually much more beautiful on the inside than it is on the outside.”

Now, as soon as one enters the interior of Unzipped, one is confronted by six life-size Ukrainian soldiers. The color scheme of the visual art matches the sculptural space, which wasn’t even planned. One immediately becomes embedded in the scene. 

Khomenko’s husband, also an artist, is currently fighting in the war. Rather than choose more heroic depictions of war—like the universal soldiers in social-realist poses one saw following WWII—she found images of soldiers that came over the internet, where faces, weapons and backgrounds were obscured by Ukrainian law for security reasons. By exaggerating the pixelated images and converting them into paintings, Khomenko satirizes the ways pop culture exists side by side with high-tech war and the way battlefields dehumanize the soldiers. The pixelated faces function like masks or shields, as if the soldiers were superheroes equipped with new powers.

“When we look at what’s happening in Ukraine and we think about the people that are fighting, they’re really kind of invisible to us,” Goldstein said. “We don’t know their stories. And so it’s almost like you’re seeing them as not real people. And you don’t see the images behind them except as obscured images. It’s thinking about the fact that Ukrainian cultural identity is being erased by the war.”

Since Unidentified Figures will be open to the public for the duration of Winter Fest, docents will be on hand to explain the project to anyone who shows up. There’s a misconception that Ukrainian creativity is just a bunch of folk art—painted eggs, costumed dancing and such—so this exhibit, in addition to the jazz gigs and the films at 3Below, should help change a few opinions while also calling attention to Putin’s murderous invasion, which actually started in 2014, not just a year ago.

In addition, anyone who walks into Unzipped will realize its massive potential as a public area for gatherings, art shows, installations, parties or receptions, especially the interior space, if it ever finally opens on a regular basis. Curators, event planners and exhibit designers will have a field day. One can imagine lighting trusses, rigging displays, tarps, fabrics, dancers, hidden speakers and all sorts of creative components, both inside and outside the sculpture. It just takes culturally literate property owners who actually care. As always.

“My hope would be that because we’re doing this exhibit during Winter Fest, that they’ll consider doing future exhibits there,” Goldstein said. “Because it’s a real opportunity for people to experience this space.”

Gary Singh
Gary Singhhttps://www.garysingh.info/
Gary Singh’s byline has appeared over 1500 times, including newspaper columns, travel essays, art and music criticism, profiles, business journalism, lifestyle articles, poetry and short fiction. He is the author of The San Jose Earthquakes: A Seismic Soccer Legacy (2015, The History Press) and was recently a Steinbeck Fellow in Creative Writing at San Jose State University. An anthology of his Metro columns, Silicon Alleys, was published in 2020.

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