Thursday, June 25, 2015

Viewer Discretion

Image Courtesy of John Powers

John Powers, Revenant
The Front, New Orleans

Opening Night
I went to the most recent Second Saturday Openings on Saint Claude Avenue. As any habitual art viewer knows, opening night is the worst time to see artwork, cramped by a crowd, drowning in noise. But it can be fun to exchange first impressions of the work and, practically speaking, there is the convenience of all of these weekend-only galleries being reliably open. The show that stood out to me that night was John Powers at The Front. There was one piece in particular that made an impression.

In addition to discussing the work of John Powers, this post is about the delicate task of being a decent viewer.

First Impressions
The centerpiece of John Power’s exhibition titled Revenant was a large, mechanical, electrically powered object that resembled a wheat field or reeds moving in the wind. It was parked on the floor, occupying most of the alcove of the small gallery. It made a hypnotic sound of moving wood and moving gears but it wasn’t noisy. It was captivating. This work deserves a bigger space, I thought. In fact it might even require a bigger space to really be seen as intended.

There was a silent video projection above the piece (I didn’t know whether it was part of the same work or its own piece). It showed a semi-abstract split screen mirror effect of clouds and statuary. Without pursuing the thought further, my impression was that it competed with the more engaging object below.

Second Viewings
I went back to The Front a week later. There were no other viewers in the gallery. The video above the mechanical reeds was not playing; an error message—Can’t Play The File—floated above the piece on the floor. I picked up the list of works and used Wikipedia to clarify some of the titles:

Revanant (the exhibition’s title):  “A revenant is a visible ghost or animated corpse that was believed to return from the grave to terrorize the living.”

Ialu (title of the mechanical piece): “Egyptologist Jan Assmann…suggested that Greek Elysion may have instead been derived from the Egyptian term ialu (older iaru), meaning "reeds," with specific reference to the "Reed fields" … a paradisiacal land of plenty where the dead hoped to spend eternity.

The piece titled Ialu moved in a way that was both mechanical, generated by electricity and gears, and reminiscent of the natural world, a convincing rendition of wind in a field. The grass-like stems had vertical structures like horsetail reeds, a prehistoric plant still found on six continents The reeds moved in slow motion, or what would be slow motion in filmed footage of a reed field in the wind. This gave it a dream-like pace.

Sometimes a work of art will illustrate the strangeness of making art. Much time and skill was directed to making this curious object. From a pragmatic standpoint, making art is a waste of industry. It is also one of the best things humans do. The power of this piece was the contradiction of the industrial object and the evocation of natural beauty.

According to the title sheet the video was not part of Ialu but was listed as its own work,STLIII, a title I could not decode. Even if they were two distinct works, Ialu could only be seen from one side of its rectangular form. One could not look at the sculpture and ignore the video or in this case the error message that floated above it.

Wanting to confirm my opinion of the video from opening night, I went the artist’s Vimeo page. The 2 minutes 13 seconds video included clouds, a brief translucent face (unless I was hallucinating) and like goal posts to the afterlife, two statues of cemetery angels perched above crosses. The vocabulary of the show was steeped in the ancient worlds of Egypt and Greece, with Christianity as the latecomer. Other works in the show are titled Meta, Omphalos, and Dying to Rise from the Dead. The angels and crosses seemed kind of clumsy next to the more subtle allusions and creations. Although the video was not working that day, I stand by my first impression that it detracted from the piece it shared a space with. As a stand-alone video it didn’t really hold its own either.

The rest of the work in the show was much stronger. In a broad material vocabulary it explored the theme of the ancient and enduring lure of the afterworld, and managed to contain a bit of its fabricated mystery.

My opening night impressions of John Power’s exhibition, specifically the piece Ialu, were an uncalculated response to the artwork in its environment. I was not familiar with the artist. I did not look for titles, read a statement or see a website. The second time I saw the work I looked at the titles, researched unfamiliar words, noted the materials used, and looked up the artist. This seemed to be a responsible thing to do if I was going to write about the work. My question now is this: does research erode or augment the experience of seeing? I am afraid that I cerebral-ized this work before I allowed myself to fully experience it. The setting—not quite spacious enough and having technical difficulties—did not help, but I overemphasized the need to decode the titles, think about the inclusion or omission of the video, and see other versions of the work. I spent almost as much time online as looking at the work in person. As a result I couldn’t relocate the intensity of my initial experience of the work. Mea culpa.

That said, on the artist’s website there is a version of Ialu that positions the mechanical reeds in front of a more simple video of clouds (also employing the split screen mirror effect, clouds folding into themselves). Although video is not noted with “wood, steel, plastic and electric motor,” the materials that comprise the piece, this particular video seems to transform the sculpture from a thing to a place. I would like to have seen this version.

Image Courtesy of John Powers

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