Oct 28 2008
The last 2 weeks I was in the US, on a much too fast journey to Lincoln, Nebraska; Chicago; Philadelphia and New York City. The purpose was largely to make some money, goaded by a very nicely paid one hour talk at Rowan State University in Glassboro NJ, the invitation for which arrived in an email a few years ago. It could only be done in the autumn term, and well in advance I tried to patch together some other screenings and workshops to help cover the airfare and add to the sum. But I also wanted to see Leighton Pierce’s installation, The Agency of Time, in Lincoln at the Sheldon Museum, and it closed on Oct 16. I plotted my schedule to fit.
My original itinerary, designed to minimize travel costs but only at the expense of body and soul, had me set to fly from Seoul to Vancouver, change planes and fly to NYC, sleep between midnight and 6 am on whatever airport surface I could find, then to Chicago to rush to catch a flight to Omaha. A little economically determined journey through hell. However, the angels intervened, and in Incheon we waited, with the engine cowling suspiciously open, as the Air Canada take-off was delayed. And delayed. And finally the flight was canceled for mechanical reasons – some simple part needing replacement but there wasn’t one at the airport, though perhaps one was in Seoul. Or one could be flown in from Beijing. Some Korean tempers heightened and loud shouting ensued, while security police milled about nearby. I inquired about getting a new flight, as staying around for a next day departure on the original itinerary would find me late in Lincoln. They indicated there were 4 Korean Air flights out the next day to Chicago which I might get. Finally we were herded to a bus and taken to a rather opulent Hyatt Hotel, given food coupons, and sent to a vast bed. A lot better than the chairs at JFK. I was awoken a bit after midnight to receive confirmation I’d get a noon flight direct to O’Hare, and all told I’d get to Omaha 2 hours later than my original plans. Not bad.
The flight was uneventful. On going through immigration, the Chicago fellow flipped through the passport, perhaps noting the many stamps, and asked, “You miss America?” Not a question I’d ever had before, and while it wasn’t quite true, I promptly said, “Of course.” Under the paranoid ambient of the times, it seemed a less than friendly inquiry requiring a politically correct response. Got my flight to Omaha, noticing the beefy super-sized Americans boarding. I got sandwiched between two of these guys in the plane. The weather was clear and landing in Omaha I noted again the landscape abstracts which seem to have become the fashion of the times – neat midwest sections, 40 acres, plowed with soil conservation squiggles, making for a giant patchwork quilt of squares and curved patterns. Slowly the old circular irrigation systems are disappearing, changing the landscape into something less geometrically rigid, as if an artist had descended on the land, making a massive earthwork.
At the Omaha airport Dan Ladely, who runs the Ross Media Arts Center at the University of Nebraska, picked me up, and we drove across a lovely autumn landscape, through the alleged “nothing” of the I-80 cross-state highway, toward Lincoln. About a mile out of town the State-owned car sputtered to a halt with no electrical current at all, and I waited by the highway while Dan walked into town to get a tow car. While waiting one guy, a young black man, pulled over to inquire if I needed help. I told him help was on the way, and he went off, smiling. In Lincoln I was put up at Rogers House, a former judge’s home turned bed and breakfast place – a lovely old 1900’s house, solid and large and well kept. I couldn’t but ponder on its qualities versus the plague of giant 2×4 and particle board popcorn houses of maximum cubic volume and minimum construction value that had bloomed across the nation, insubstantial as the fraudulent loans by which they’d been bought, emblematically dragging the US economy into a black hole of debt. After all, the President himself had announced it was a patriotic post 9/11 duty to shop ’til you drop. And we apparently did, whether with sub-prime loans or juggled credit cards, or a tax-cut no-costs war. The judge’s time would have found the present wanting, both architecturally and morally: debt back then was frowned upon.
The other impetus for my journey had been to see Leighton Pierce’s installation at the Sheldon museum. A few years back I’d seen his previous one, a stunning and complex work, Warm Occlusion, at the art museum at Iowa City, where he teaches. I’d been in Lincoln on an artist’s residency, thanks to Dan and the Hixon-Lied Ross Center, and had pressed the people at the Sheldon to go see the previous work while it was up, and had extolled as best I could Leighton’s talents, trying to stick a foot in the door on his behalf. One of them did go, and was properly and duly impressed, and in turn he was invited to do a piece in Lincoln. I’d like to think I had a little part in it all. I also tried to get some New York curators to make the trip out, but none did. Oh, but now I remember, there’s nothing out in the cultural wastelands of the mid-west.
The new work, follows the previous one in creating a dynamic, active environment of imagery and sound, orchestrated in an immersive manner. Warm Occlusion was architecturally larger and more complex, composed of 6 sizable rectangular structural columns in a basement area of the University of Iowa Museum. Leighton projected imagery on all sides of these columns, making for a rich spatial arena into which one could walk, wandering into the area of the columns, surrounded by them, or go outside, seeing them all in relationship to each other. His imagery was fluid, in constant motion, using his video techniques of a painterly and flurry aesthetic, in his hands expertly orchestrated. Each column had a video loop, composed of images which included water, foliage, a woman, a stone falling from a ledge into a crevice, hands, a face, hints of sexuality. The loops for each column were composed of the same imagery, but the editing – in which there is no cutting, but rather invisible and fluid transitions from image to image – varied in sequence for each loop. The end effect is to make a rich and complex visual music, with rhythms, counterpoints, motifs, and a sense of narrative drive, however abstract, recurring in different manners and times. Coupled with the subtle “concrete music” of actual recorded sounds, likewise carefully composed, orchestrated and dispersed by multiple speakers, the total effect was to surround one in a rich embrace that hinted at narrative drama, while washing one with a languid sensual experience which evoked deep feelings, though as in good poetry, one could not really define these but only feel them. I spent several hours on two visits to this installation, wandering between the columns of imagery, swimming in a 3-dimensional field of sight and sound, or sitting to the side, prompted to piece together the structural elements at play, all the while enticed and drawn into my own memories. They were hours well spent and reverberate still within me.
In the past years, as I have made some installations myself, I have gone out of my way to see what installation work I could, managing to see some of the more major names – Bill Viola, Douglas Gordon, Doug Aitkin, Bruce Nauman, Gary Hill, Tony Oursler, Shirin Neshat, and a mess of others whose names dissolved as fast as their “work.” Frankly most such installations are appalling for their pretentiousness (Viola), or for their student-level ideas and execution which it is imagined escalates to “art” with multiple screens, or in installation art speak, “channels.” Like most video installation viewers, I tend to look for 30 seconds or a minute and leave, even if the note at the entrance says it lasts 30 minutes. Or want to leave – out of a perverse sense of duty I stay sometimes longer, though departure usually makes more sense. Leighton is operating leagues beyond any of these as an artist and his work compels staying, looking again, and does not exhaust itself in a moment, nor leave a curdled sourness in the mind. That his installations have only materialized in the alleged cultural desert of the Midwest tells something about the corroded state of America’s art culture of the times. New York and Los Angeles prefer Koons and Barney, makers of crass spectacle, rather than the nuance and subtlety of genuine art.
With Agency of Time, Leighton has continued a realm explored in his recent single screen work #1, a work of intense and elusive richness, also in his fluid painterly manner, but despite its seemingly simple formal qualities, complex and ripe with a passionate sensuality.
Here again is a work which flickers between almost pure abstraction and a musically-rooted sense of narrative, with evasive imagery suggestive of life at its most ripe and sensual extremes. This work pulses with a beauty which calls forth agape, its formal structure pointing to the realm of icons, though in Leighton’s work this sense of religiosity also clearly extols and celebrates sex and sexuality, however visually veiled and discreet he makes it.
Agency of Time is composed of three very wide-screen (32 x 9 ratio) images, arrayed in line on a wall; before it, in the center of the 3 screens, stands a vertical column, perhaps 8 feet distant, its sides approximately the same 32 x 9 ratio. As in Warm Occlusion, the imagery is fluid, and each screen re-works the same imagery, its order shifting, though maintaining a basic commonality in its sequential flow. The pace here is much quicker, and the three screens are unified by the recurrent circling movement of the camera work, cycling through images of an old stone cube-shaped fountain, foliage, a tree in a field, water, old stone stairs, a carved and weather-worn stone bench, a tunnel-like passageway leading to the sea, a woman walking through a field, through the tunnel, on the ground, a red glove. In fleeting images one can see the profile of a breast, perhaps the pubic region, a face. All these elements are orchestrated nimbly, moving so fast that we can gather an impression and a sense of narrative movement, but such that it is difficult or impossible to trace them before they’ve rushed away, supplanted with new imagery in a flurry of color and motion. Aesthetically it is exquisite, ravishing in its beauty; ripe and sensuous in its feeling. Likewise the soundtrack is lush, composed of natural sounds, distant bells, the rustle of grasses, the pulse of the sea. These three screens and their interplay with each other make for such a dense and enticing play that the vertical column for me became a slight annoyance, distracting and seemingly unnecessary. The imagery on the column – a man standing with clouds rushing by, the stone steps – made a narrative sense, implying a kind of journey, the man gazing toward the woman, but it lacked the aesthetic force of the 3 panels on the wall. It felt as if Leighton thought the concept of an installation required it, and perhaps the sculptural nature of Warm Occlusion seemed to call again. However, while far simpler than the previous work, Agency of Time seems more actively engaging, pulling one in with its fluid energy, its quick movements, and its elusive sense of drama, almost a hint of a thriller buried in its thicket of suggestive images.
I spent more than two hours in two days with it. The second day I was accompanied by Blake Eckard, a friend from Stanberry Mo., and by his own definition a “simple country-boy.” He makes 16mm films, regional in content – about places like Stanberry (pop. 1136). He came reluctantly, having seen a few of Leighton’s short videos and not liking them. On entering I saw him immediately drawn in, and watched as he was clearly seduced, moving from screen to screen, stepping back to grasp them all. He stayed 90 minutes and came out changed and deeply impressed. He’d never seen an installation before – fortunately or perhaps unfortunately he started with the very best !
In Lincoln I had an evening screening at the Ross, with bad timing, the show on an empty autumn break-time campus. 15 people showed, half the people in the unfinished film, SWIMMING IN NEBRASKA, which I was showing as a work-in-progress. Though frankly I doubt many others would have shown up if the university had been in session: they’d all be beering up for the BIG RED game on Saturday. The other film was a sneak preview of PARABLE, which was shot in/around Lincoln in 2007, as was SWIMMING. Also showed AT PLAY IN THE FIELDS OF THE LORD [NEBRASKA], an installation work.
My trip then took me on to Chicago, for a show at FACETS, a long-time institution for the showing and distribution of independent-experimental-foreign films. Its catalog is huge and has for some decades made available works from around the world which, alas, would likely otherwise be unavailable. I screened OVER HERE to a small but appreciative audience. Small as in 15 or so. And then, after a quick visit with a handful of old Chicago friends, it was on to Philadelphia, and a one hour talk at Rowan State University in Glassboro NJ, before a full room of students, young mostly and looking like escapees from the Simpsons. They were all film and media students, whom I’d been told were looking for the fast track to fame and fortune, as seems endemic these days. I calmly and good spiritedly disabused them of this notion, suggesting that even if they first learned how to make films well, fame and fortune were likely to elude them, as it does 999 of every thousand who think the media is the sure route to such. I suggested they were putting the cart before the horse, and that if they were really interested in film as a craft and/or an art, they needed first to learn the trade. The F&F might follow suit if they did that first, though not very likely. Otherwise I suggested American Idol might be quicker.
And then, in this whirlwind tour, it was on to the Big Apple, NYC, and a screening at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, in the Walter Reade cinema, smack dab in the heart of the cultural navel of the nation. They have really excellent projection, and I presume a mailing list of thousands, and a potential audience of at least a modest fraction of the city’s 9 million souls. There were, again, about 15 people. The next day did a workshop at Millennium, followed with a screening in the evening – to less than 15 souls.
Which brings one to ponder just what is the point of trying to make films such as mine, or in Leighton’s case, installation works, in a time in which whatever we invest in them in skill and passion and experience, in our culture is deemed unworthy of a glance, all while mass spectacle such as football or other “boys and their balls” events, draw millions with ease. Or pure unmitigated crap on TV sucks in viewers willing to be pummeled with stupidity and advertising breaks at a mile a minute. While I have never really given any serious consideration to having an audience, and have always accepted my place far on the margins not only of the larger culture, but even the “arts world” one, I must admit it rankles a bit to find oneself in a near empty cinema, screening to a fistful of people, while outside the door the hurly-burly of life swarms on, with inane “entertainments” serving to distract and warp the soul. Not so long ago, while scarcely competitive with the commercial business of film, there was a little pocket of interest, sustained by art houses and museums, and supported academically and in the critics’ notices in the papers, and back then I might have had 100 or 150 at the Walter Reade. But no more. A large part of this is directly addressable to the triumph of the Market Economy ideology in the US and elsewhere, an ideology which functions not only intellectually but also in the most tangible of ways. To say it is an ideology in which the most important value is money, its making and spending, and anything which fails to acknowledge this value system is simply brushed aside as worthless. Hence Hollywood makes films almost scientifically calculated (or they wish it were so) to make money, appealing to the broadest monied common denominator, cynically using whatever tried and true props (famous fantastically paid good looking stars; sex, violence, etc.) work to draw an audience that will pay $10 for the thrill. But more, the entire system is now rigged to support this ideology: 20 years ago, had I gone to NYC to do a show at the Walter Reade it is likely the film would be critiqued and reviewed, perhaps for a whole column, in the Village Voice and another alternative paper or two. It might have gotten a paragraph or two in the NY Times. But no more: the rules of reviewing now require a film to have a theatrical run, and the only films which get theatrical runs are, well, basically Hollywood films with big stars, etc. Over a period of several decades this process has in effect destroyed the little pocket of culture in which art houses thrived, and a wide and interesting marginal cinema was one that existed, was respected, and if you played your cards right could even offer a possible modest living. But no more.
I am a realist, and I accept this is the way things have evolved, and that for the moment there is little to be done about it. Though putting on my optimist’s hat I think Obama’s win, and the collapse of the economy (and with it perhaps the primary argument for the Market Economy ideology) will lead in due course to a revision of these values, and maybe in another decade or two, in some new form, a new and vibrant cultural shift will once again make it possible. But for now I graciously accept that my work is made for an audience of one – myself first, and one at a time, for those who have survived the massive pressures of the culture we live in, and who look for something other than superficial entertainment, or pure spectacle, and can appreciate what I try to do, and what a scattering of others around the globe try to do – Pedro Costa, Nathaniel Dorsky, Hou Hsou Hsien, Leighton Pierce, and many others, mostly invisible and unheralded.
Like this newly discovered planet, Formalhaut b, orbiting the star Fomalhaut, only 25 light-years from Earth, in the constellation Piscis Austrinus.
Which is in the same universe as these, which is our universe.