Feature by Peter Dobey
Taking its cue from Proust, Krowswork’s ‘Digital Madeleine, Or Video-Time is Never Lost or Past’ invites the viewer to explore his or her own relationship to that great adversary of desire: Time. Society tells us our desires are pitted up against it, but is that really the case? Certainly not when asleep, or in that curious reverie we call the daydream. To be awake and conscious is to be aware of the outside world and our interaction with it through perception. When unconscious, or in the hinterlands of the mind when in deep thought, the mind recedes from the charted areas of the material world and into a wilderness where thought is less structured. Ironically it is that inner world, the one that knows no bounds, that propels us to exist in the outer world of time and space, and of people and things. Besides, what is life without a dream? Perhaps the figure of speech “to follow one’s dreams”, invoked ad nauseam in American culture, has spread so profusely because it is a metaphor for a desire that is unreachable in the confines of the real world, it is always just out of grasp. And so it is ironic that the daily grind of American Capitalism feeds off of time it self, devouring up its resources by gobbling up all the good moments. But that comes as no real surprise, after all, dreams are provoked by desire.
We spend much of our lives in pursuit of that which we think we desire: be it love, knowledge, a sense of self or monetary gain, but we are inevitably disappointed when we achieve much of what we desire because obtaining the object of our desire successfully extinguishes that which drove our quest in the first place: desire itself. What we actually pursue in life is the drives of desire itself. By reflecting upon differing internal relations we have to the outside world of space and time, the pieces in this exhibit remind us of the futile nature of desire.
Attaining what one desires is often a let down; whatever is found can never live up to the distant memory that triggered its need in the first place. Every one of us has had the crestfallen experience of returning to a place from our youth we remember with vivid detail, only to realize that the reality does not hold up to our fantasy. To paraphrase Proust, most desires, once achieved, are “as fugitive as the years”. Perhaps this is because even the most concrete of things, such as houses, cities, mountains, and trees, are situated not in physical space, but in psychical time.
The current show at Krowswork gallery in Oakland is beautiful, and reminds us why that word should never be considered passé. I say this without the insinuation of judgment, but to convey another connotation of the word “beautiful”, that of an ideal and of a subjective truth. (I will leave considerations of whether or not the show is “good” or “bad” to the viewer) Through varying visual explications, the works presented in ‘Digital Madeleine’ show how ideals inevitably slip away, albeit in subjective renditions. This is similar to the framing experience one has in psychoanalysis – whatever reality pertains to the moment of the analytic experience, no matter how far fetched, or out of touch with “reality” a thought may be, it is none the less a truth, one that can shift by the minute.
‘Digital Madeleine’ hinges on one work in particular that is as close to a psychoanalytic experience as one can get with contemporary art. Margo Majewska’s installation ‘Sky Meadow Road’ leaves little to reflect upon except reflection itself. Like the psychoanalytic session, it gets to the core of concrete reality by means of unearthing illusory representations we place atop the natural world. It is aesthetic in so far as it un-packs the underlying principles of the appreciation of enjoyment itself. It is pure experience.
When one first steps into ‘Sky Meadow Road’ one is put at ease by blues and greens that wash over the viewers retina. One is bathed in video color and layers upon layers of unadulterated phenomena that surround you like a hall of mirrors, its spherical representation tearing one away from the outside world and plopping one down firmly in the mental sphere. However, there is no James Turrell style trickery here, the strategy is as simple as can be: a constant projection of a tree-covered bucolic natural scene shone on three out of the four walls of the room, accompanied by the soothing, telluric sounds of the wooded Santa Cruz mountains where the video was filmed, a place that reminded Majewska of memories she had from her childhood in Poland – the undamaged woods near Warsaw, her grandfathers farm, the Cathedrals where she would get lost in thought, bored by the sermon. She insisted on the work being installed in the galleries ‘pew room’ for this reason, stating in a recent artist talk, that the placement of the piece had to “be here” because it reminded her of home. Freud has a theory of a phenomenon in childhood called “screen memories”, which are barely memorable, often trivial instances of reverie, which had come to us in childhood and return every once and a while. They carry with them significant latent content about our lives. ‘Sky Meadow Road’ seems as if it is a screen memory of a home once lost, now found again, in a completely different locale. No matter how tangible the trees are, the video projection is there to remind us that it doesn’t matter if this is California or the Soviet Bloc, for this locale resides in time, not space.
It has been pointed out and observed by psychoanalysts and psychologists that infants and young children have a different relationship to time than more mature adults. How could they not, they don’t yet know what time is. For this reason, very young childhood memories have certain timeless qualities to them, not in the sense of being eternal, but as having no concept of duration. We try to make up for this loss later in life by situating these lost moments in our own personal timeline. But it’s usually in vain. Physical objects and objects of love are forever lost unless we can experience them in the exact manner we did as when they were first discovered. Alas, we cannot. Nonetheless, we will persist in trying. This is the dilemma of desire, what we want is already lost before it is gained. The road of desire is paved by a persistently haunting specter; it is always a cul-de-sac that leads to a place that has long since vanished.
To walk into the video projections of ‘Sky Meadow Road’ is to walk into a dream, it dematerializes everything it comes into contact with. All at once, you are put at ease by the sounds of chirping birds, the slight rustle of wind through branches and a pleasing landscape. But the experience is neither here nor there. In the end you are sitting in a cold cement room. What you feel is an experience, but the experience is only perception, there is nothing concrete about it. Upon sitting down in one of the room’s pews, everything changes, radically. The projected image globes its own spine as the viewer corrects their own. One realizes that the foreground, background, and everything in between is spinning clockwise, away from the entrance of the screening room and into the cold black oblivion of the receding rear wall. It is this element that gradually transforms the calming environment into one of dizzying disorientation. The womb-like tranquility of sunshine and comfort quickly turns into a place of looming threat and incursions, and one is reminded of the other myth of the forest, the haunting and sinister threat of being lost in the woods, vulnerable to attack and abandonment. Adding to this is the shadowy form of the trees, their trunks quickly becoming empty black voids, a frightening illusion that feels as if the shadows are sneaking up behind you, imbued with nightmarish phantasms. A foreboding feeling that a stranger is sneaking in, perhaps stirring one to recall childhood fears of being home alone.
In a word, it is “unheimlich.” In this room, no one is in control. Not the least of which the viewer, and especially not the art. This is the key of Majewska’s installation: one feels like a stranger in their own home. The contemporary understanding of the word “Uncanny” comes from Freud’s 1919 essay of the same name. “Unheimlich”, the German, is a play on the word “heimlich”, loosely meaning concealed, secreted. Freud utilizes this word by flipping it on its head in order to evoke “that which is the inverse of familiarity” – an experience which un-conceals that which is uncomfortably familiar. Taken literally, in the sense of an experience being “familial”, one unconsciously experiences the estrangement from ones family, and worse yet, becomes a stranger to ones own self. The scenery of ‘Sky Meadow Road’ is reminiscent of Eden, and it fluctuates between heaven and hell, depending on the thoughts of the viewer. The room is a mirror that allows one to see the world they embody – that of the mind, and the world that embodies them: nature, in all of its horror. It is an interactive, omnipresent game of hide and seek between presence and absence, past and foreboding future. The miraculous thing however, is that the image is not manipulated in a way to purposely do this. This is no form of cheap gadgetry, no optical illusion. There is nothing about the actual properties of the artwork itself that is especially illusory. Instead, the gadgetry is created in the mind of the sitting observer, with each viewer experiencing a different scene as it plays out and unfolds in his or her mind alone.
An additional element of the installation plants an inescapable reminder of nature’s advances on the human: the inclusion of tall vertical tree branches reaching up towards the sky placed worryingly across the floor, directly behind where the viewer sits. The light from the projector delicately brushes the tips of the branches, symbolically completing the phantasmatic dream sequence of the trees portrayed in the video projections, the treetops of which are cut out of the visual frame. This is the intrusion of actuality into the fantasy, like Mother Nature herself; these sticks will remain much longer than you. Nature is not synonymous with paradise, and as psychoanalysis makes us painfully aware, enjoyment is not synonymous with ecstasy; it is both pleasurable and sinister. Jacques Lacan used the word “jouissance” from the French “jouir” (to enjoy) in order to describe this pain + pleasure as being fundamental to an understanding of the essence of desire, worldly desire happens not in the garden of paradise, but on earth.
It is fitting that the title of the exhibition brings to mind ‘À la recherché du temps perdu’; for the dual themes that recur in ‘Digital Madeleine’ resemble those of Proust’s great novel: transience and time. Unfortunately, the English title that is best known for the updated ‘In Search of Lost Time’ is the name given to the original English publication: ‘Remembrance of Things Past’, which misses out on the significance that the word ‘time’ plays in the French version. Fortunately, the name that this exhibition bears corrects this problem, and updates it further still by affixing the signifier “Digital” to it. This is important because names are important. For us human beings, our name gives us an identity, one that we are perhaps never quite comfortable with, but remains with us nonetheless, even if we try and change it. As our lived identity twists and bends as it transforms through the years, our name remains stable, an anchoring point of stability that destroys time by accomplishing something consciousness cannot: permanence. Our names, as well as memory traces, (such as the thought of a piece of madeleine cake dipped into tea) are blissfully ignorant to the absurd misrepresentations of the societal construction we call “time”.
As commonly known through Milton’s “Paradise Lost” interpretation of Genesis 2, Adam wakes up to discover he can put names to objects and concepts and that he can speak, a metaphor of knowledge as a form of dominion, but also names and words as a way of knowing. The tripartite multi-media work of Mary Hull Webster, ‘Hidden Narratives’ attempts stubbornly to rub out names, words and other persistent signifiers that attach meaning to things and experiences but also dog us throughout life. Lucian Freud, grandson of Sigmund famously said, “The longer you look at an object, the more abstract it becomes, and, ironically, the more real.” Webster is a painter by trade and her installation clearly evokes not only the practice of painting, with its videos dripping, lyrical layers and blocks of both figurative and abstract coloration and narrative, but crucially, evokes the metaphor of what it is to be a painter – she who plays, she who works freehand, she who is unhindered by technological constrictions and can simply paint. Most importantly, the painter is she who reveals truth by means of obfuscation. The painter takes the already represented and makes it nonrepresentational in order, oddly enough, to show things as they really are.
The project room houses three projectors, each one playing the same three videos, (“A Book of Days in 2013”, “Field Phenomena”, and “The Last Journey of a Very Old Man”) but in differing order. The videos are chaotic but reflective, each with a theme of memory, illustrated through abstract shapes, words, and other jumbled imagery. The only immediately tangible difference being the surfaces they are projected onto. Only one projection, the largest, is shown on a flat and unadulterated wall. Although the set of three videos is viewed more clearly here, and sets the tone for the installation as a whole, it is relatively devoid of any form that could lend it concrete meaning. Only in relation to its larger community, the projection’s counterpart pieces, which are cast atop physical objects, can it show off its real colors.
Memories and thoughts are neither material or contingent on elements of the outside world such as time. All the same, the meanings we attach to thoughts are constituently and fundamentally of the moment- they need the outside world, or the presence of another mind in order to come to fruition. The same memory or dream on one night may mean something entirely different the next night, minute, or second. Webster’s installation has a crucial auditory component as part of it that is densely textured and ethereal. It weaves in and out and has characteristics that range from something akin to the buzzing of bees all the way to a low industrial hum, complete with blips and blops of sounds whirling about.
‘Lucia Half Double’ is projected onto a framed photograph, an eerie photo of two women who are the same woman. One does not know who the woman is and is to speculate, the only thing one knows is that she, like the thoughts projected on top of her – are plural.
‘A wild book’ is projected onto a piece of paper with twelve (miniature) “chapters” of printed text on it, a set of artists instructions in a way, but also musings- decrees in the abstract. Attempts and undertakings are a recurring theme in Webster’s installation. These acts can also be seen as symptomatically repetitive, depending on how you look. The question “how to look” is something Webster craftily toys with. On the opposing page of the same printed text appears a mirror imaging of the same dictums – those eerie names once again printed, only this time all the information has been obliterated by cold, hard null symbols. All positive or negative connotations wiped clear. The blank page reads like an attempt to invalidate her own words, a complete erasure of thought. Only one ambiguous piece of prose remains. It reads, “glimmering warm light, glorious Friday afternoon. Camera feels good in hands. I’m very still so it can concentrate on bird, wind, water sounds. Rest in time as camera records, can move my head and eyes, coffee and cookie at bovine bakery. Contentment.” This is the only passage left of the twelve chapters. It is definitively, and yet ambiguously entitled ‘Chapter 8: Take Sony HDV CAMERA TO LIMANTOUR BEACH.’
From afar, these symbols of negation are unrecognizable as erased testaments, and instead look like mere fragmented lettering. This is due to the obfuscating agent of luminous video washing over the viewer’s perception. In fact, it is the deadening of the light by the body of the viewer that opens up the field of speech printed on this digitally illuminated manuscript to perception. In a clever mode of presentation, the viewer must physically step in front of the glaring light of the video projector in order to make the paper legible. The action of blocking off the light carries with it a crucial metaphor to be considered in relation to memory: in order to eclipse light, one must step into it.
The function of words as meaning making devices is crucial to a psychoanalytic reading of the installation, as if it were a thinking subject itself. Thought is only ever constructed within language; it is language, not pure thought (which doesn’t exist) that structures our mental life and existence. Words slip, and their signification and meaning are prone to separate from the abstract thing they give meaning to. As minds often go blank, and words are lost, so is the language of Webster’s testimony. Nailed up to the wall Martin Luther style, her abstract theses bare witness to the disguised and veiled nature of language itself. Objects of art are re-organizations of thought, and Webster uses the paint of video and applies it on top of the canvas of the printed word.
Where as Webster’s work is non-linear and in a repetitive loop, reminiscent of the nature of thought itself, devoid of time – the third and last installation in ‘Digital Madeleine’ is one of unbearable finality. It is a portrait of an individuals life, both forty years ago and in the present tense, and one that will not last another forty due to the constricts of actual time.
To enter into the room that Ilene Segalove’s ‘Whatever Happened to My Future?’ is housed you must pull back a black curtain, a suitable way to enter into a time-warp. And what a trip it is. One can’t tell what is the past and what is the present. The video portrays the present day artist responding to and conversing with her much younger self. Around the time of the advent of handheld video, Segalove had recorded herself asking existential and straightforward questions about her future to a fantasy recipient ear. The younger Segalove yearns for answers to the questions we all ask, especially when we are young, and only begin to answer as we fade into death.
The room is fitted like a therapists office; black couch, coffee table, and the company of one very present other – a speaking subject, speaking right at you. In the psychoanalytic session it is quite common for an analysand’s speech to waiver between the deeply emotive and the bla bla bla of everyday minutia. One’s personal discourse is always intermittent. All people have multiple personalities, not only those who have been given the simplistic psychiatric diagnosis of “multiple personality disorder”, though in such cases the phenomena may be more extreme. However, for this experience, settled in the position of the patiently listening analyst, the viewer takes part in a truly remarkable session: a conversation between the same person, divided by 40 years.
Her line of questioning takes a trajectory that is universal to all but also specific to her own singularity, begging in her youth: “Ilene, do Ricky and I ever get it together?” only to meet a deadpan and mature riposte, “Ricky committed suicide in 1979” from her disappointing future (and current) self. Continuing,
YOUNG: Wow, what happened?
OLD: Life, the world just freaked him out.
YOUNG: Was there anything I could have done?
OLD: No, he couldn’t bear that you, me, we, couldn’t change the world.
YOUNG: Well, how do I make the right decisions now?
Although humorous in content, the spliced account is fundamentally heartbreaking; the tergiversations are hard to bear. Jacques Lacan, with his signature sly humor, once remarked that people don’t truly have dialogues with each other, only dual monologues. Segaloves’ dual monologue, between a person that is alien to herself, yet so remarkably similar, reminds us that the essence of living and of aging lies within the melancholic, yet beautiful attempts to keep possession of a young, fragile self that is still with us but long abandoned.
YOUNG: Well, who will I be with? Will there be the one?
OLD: OK… there’s Ricky and Ricky, and Gary and Gary and Neal and Greg and John, Paul and George. There is no Ringo.
YOUNG: So, my heart will be broken?
OLD: At least 15 times. And you’ll feel like you’re just gonna die… and then you don’t.
One feels helpless watching the younger Ilene reach for solutions, but also recognizes that the answers she seeks are only held within her own self. The video reminds you, the viewer, of the questions you make for yourself about yourself, and address to yourself but still go searching for the answers for through others. In actuality, of course, what you are searching for is only in you.
The younger human self asks the older self what they are looking for, and only in hindsight does the older self respond: “someone like you”. This installation serves as a reminder that in yourself there will always be a place to remind you that there is someone in the future just like you, waiting. The video starts over:
YOUNG: You are me, forty years later, and now that you’re here, I have some pretty important questions for you. You gotta know a lot about us, right?
OLD: Ilene. Just because I’m old doesn’t mean I’m wise. That myth has got to go.
As humans we are divided and split whether we like it or not, and our ultimate question, ‘What is it to be whole?’ is to go forever unanswered. In our insistent striving to find answers that we believe will plug up the holes of lack, be it through certain experiences, love objects, our own children, or art – we must learn to live with two difficult and yet hopeful dilemmas: life starts and ends at one point, but it is in it’s lacunas, the gaps of concrete meaning, where significance lies. If we really try, it is possible to reflect on those moments, even if for a second…
DIGITAL MADELEINE, OR VIDEO-TIME IS NEVER LOST OR PAST is on view through this Saturday, Oct. 12th at Krowswork Gallery, Oakland. http://www.krowswork.com