In Haruki Murakami’s 1997 epic novel, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, the protagonist, Toru Okada, on a search for his wife’s missing cat, comes upon an abandoned, dried-up well in his suburban neighborhood.
Looking down, yelling and hearing his own echoed voice in the well, Toru describes it as ‘overwhelming numbness.’ As a kind of infinite void amidst the architecture of the everyday, the well comes to symbolize the surreal fabric that both binds and unhinges exsistence. Its presence, set against its outdated utility, conjures an absence that can only be felt as an echo forever lost. When experiencing Daniel Roth’s exhibition Zones of Dissolution, on view at the Dallas Museum of Art, I find myself looking into Murakami’s well. Except in Roth’s sculpture of water dyed black, instead of an echo, I see my skewed reflection, familiar yet utterly foreign. The feeling in either case is absolutely spellbinding.
If Murakami’s exploration of the surreal within the real is symbolic, German artist Daniel Roth’s take on a similar theme is more empirical, and all the more engaging because of it. His installation Cabrini Green Forest documents the mythical Cabrini Green Forest, which, according to Roth, exists in a secret tunnel that connects the Metropolitan Correctional Facility in downtown Chicago to the Cabrini Green Housing project. Roth’s abovementioned “well” — the pool of black water in the center of the gallery — serves as an entrance to the forest below. Much of the other sculptural work in the show, including tree branches and prison towers, acts as a physical archive to the forest, a simulacrum of a fantastical absence.
Accompanying the installations are framed architectural drawings of the correctional facility. These large-yet-understated images can only be described as awe-inspiring, as they somehow manage to stand out amidst the already extraordinary setting. The drawings are mostly white space, but they have the feel of sitting in a dark movie theater, by virtue of the strong narrative space in their spare compositions. Normally we associate disembodied spectatorship with darkness (the movie theater, the peep show), but it’s achieved here against a blinding white screen. It is this transcendent contrast that best encapsulates Zones of Dissolution. Roth’s surreal archaeology alone affirms the success of the exhibition, yet coupled with its impeccable design and installation, it attains the feeling of that indeterminate place between dreaming and waking. I came away feeling high as a kite.
While the long concourse of the DMA connecting Daniel Roth’s exhibition with the William Eggleston Los Alamos exhibition may not contain a hidden forest, it still acts as a conduit revealing relationships between the two that may not be obvious on the surface. The Eggleston exhibition, a compendium of color snapshots taken between 1966 and 1974, primarily in the American South, continues the theme of the surreal in the everyday. The 90-plus photographs that make up this newly-seen archive all exude a keen elegance. Despite the exhibition’s volume, it has a consistency that never becomes tiresome. Eggleston, is often billed as the “Father of Color Photography,” began working in the mid-1960s with a then-new dye transfer process, at a time when color photography was not considered high art. By virtue of his subject matter and technique, the seemingly mundane and the snapshot, respectively, he’s also often considered the pioneer of the most recent wave of “democratic” art.
For the contemporary viewer, this last designation is mired in philosophical and historical potential. In the age of Nan Goldin, Wolfgang Tillmans, and Ryan McGinley, the snapshot has been pushed to its conceptual limits. While Eggleston’s colorful and gorgeous prints found (or find) the sublime in the everyday, the above-mentioned artists have increasingly blurred these parameters, to the point of making the sensual mundane. As if their beauty were not enough, that these photographs reveal such theoretical shifts and temporal affects makes for a thrilling exhibition. The above-mentioned luminaries make Eggleston wholly fresh, rather than merely nostalgic.
The issue of Eggleston’s subject matter being democratic is, retrospectively, much more complicated than his aesthetics. With the proliferation of the snapshot, it’s difficult in the year 2005 to rejoice in this democracy of technique or non-heroic subject matter as radical. While walking through the rooms of the exhibition, one can’t help but be overcome by the suggestion of its political weight. At a time when “democracy” is being “installed” on a geopolitical scale through military force, what does it mean if the minutia of the everyday is democratic? Is the spread of the mundane throughout the Middle East the goal of the current Administration when it praises “the spread of democracy?”
Perhaps these are not just rhetorical questions, and perhaps these images of the South do say something about democracy. The lush images are littered with commercial advertising, from Buick symbols to Coca-Cola logos. Their presence seems to capture the double temporality of advanced capitalism’s democracy. What’s most striking throughout Los Alamos is how everything is so forcefully new, while also being coated with a thick layer of rust; it is a world of glossy futurism and simultaneous decay, the “present” being a hollow afterthought. As such, the experience of the exhibition is surprisingly timely, as all we can do is take comfort in the dreamlike beauty of it all.
That these thoughts are brought to bear on us is a reflection of the exhibition’s success, and not its failure. Such might be the nature of a surreal void in our day-to-day life: sometimes it is sublime, and other times it can only result in a feeling of ‘overwhelming numbness.’
Images courtesy the artists and the Dallas Museum of Art.
David Michael Perez is a writer living in Dallas.