Cauleen Smith and A. Van Jordan's collaboration I want to see my skirt is between a filmmaker and a poet. A unique experience for anyone who has yet to attend an opening at testsite, and much like a neighborhood dinner party on Sunday night, you arrive at dusk, walk up the street and open a small white fence leading to the house.
Upon arriving, you see two blue images, rear-projected on the windows. I know I am a sucker for video, but every time I see it projected on a surface other than a white cube or in a semi non-traditional manner, it still takes my breath away. Smith's work in this collaboration is far and away the most ambitious I have seen in this living room/converted exhibition space.
What I love about this collaboration is how Smith's colors and Van Jordan's vibrant words fuse together. They took the title, I want to see my skirt, from African photographer Malik Sidibe's photograph of a seven-year-old girl who came to his studio and wanted to see her skirt. Smith and Jordan breathed life into this girl and gave her a name, Roka. Then they imagined a narrative all around her: in the studio, on the beach/river with her friends, dancing at someone's house.
Through multiple videos—viewed on scattered monitors on the floor or mounted on the wall and projected on the windows—Smith sucks you into Roka's world. She has such an incredible knack for filming in a location and completely transporting the viewer. McKinney Falls looks like a paradise island off the coast of Africa, while Andy Coolquitt's house looks straight out of the "70s in Morocco. Each one presents a different narrative and was shot in completely different light. The studio portrait almost seems as if Smith found the film in an old canister, while the shots from the beach are as lush as recently shot 35mm film. The variety of presentation, and the qualities of each film, provides a wealth of topics for endless speculation, perhaps better suited for another essay.
Van Jordan takes you into Roka's awkward adolescence with 12 poems in a truly nice catalogue/booklet. My favorite poem, entitled "Roka's Parents," imagines a conversation between a mother and father looking at a photograph of their daughter. "Mother: In her skirt, she looks like a woman who understands / The power of accessories. No shoes, no top. No problem. / I just love watching her love herself. The emperor's clothes / Were a problem, because he couldn't appreciate his body, / But a child knows better. She has full knowledge / Of the gift the skin gives to the skirt." The poem then goes on to imagine what the father would say about his daughter in this newfound skirt/skin. "Father: It's not so much the flare of her skirt / That worries me. You must understand, / Though, from a man's perspective, knowledge / Of what a woman has beneath a dress can be a problem, / If you don't have a sense of what the body / Can do when not covered by the tailor's clothes." Van Jordan has given the characters personalities and attitudes. His candid language complements Smith's lush images. The two artists each bring different aspects of the fictitious narrative to the table to create a cohesive and vibrant installation.
Smith and Van Jorden's installation is a one-to-one encounter, while L.L.S.P. is a four-person collaboration at Gallery 3. L.L.S.P. (Laser Light Show Project), curated by artist Kurt Mueller, includes artists Jamie Rene Wentz and Michael Berryhill with writer Dan Boehl. Instead of using a photograph, the group used each other as a starting point from which to construct a narrative. Mueller saw the two artists" work in different shows around Austin as having a connection. He then decided to round out the group by adding a writer.
What is interesting about this collaboration is how they almost present themselves as a collective. L.L.S.P. reads like a conspiracy or secret political organization; you are uncertain of where they meet and what exactly they talk about. The installation, and the title "L.L.S.P.," is presented as "a truth-seeking organization dedicated to uncovering and reporting events that took place [blacked out information]. The following are first-hand accounts of [blacked out information] survivors smuggled [blacked out information] by an [blacked out information]."
Upon first glance, I am a bit puzzled by why in the world these artists had been paired together, but upon closer inspection their work somehow begins to bleed and overlap. Wentz's installation takes up a majority of the space with its set-like structure. She has used chunks of asphalt with rebar sticking out to present what they say is the "rubble aftermath." When you get down low, you start to notice small model houses perched on the edges of the asphalt. Wentz has created a world for inhabitants two inches high who have experienced this giant explosion in the center of town.
On the far wall, next to Wentz's set, is a painting by Berryhill of a laser light show coming out of a pile of rubble. The bright neon colors look like laser beams with a nice blue background. Berryhill's painting serves as a reference to the fictitious events that occurred after the supposed explosion. "At [blacked out information] that night, the survivors, standing side-by-side with [blacked out information], witnessed a laser light show that had been set up on top of [blacked out information] rubble." I should also mention the gallery is only lit with lights from inside of the rubble and a slide projector on the wall showing "text images," hence the laser light show concept.
I like the dialogue between Berryhill and Wentz's work, but when you add the slide projector component by Dan Boehl, it becomes more complicated. Boehl outsourced to a network of writers certain facts from the purported narrative and had them write personal accounts based on these facts. The resulting texts were then censored/blacked out and projected at an angle on the wall in front of the rubble. In a sense, Boehl created his own sub-collaboration within the larger collaboration of L.L.S.P.
What I find especially interesting is the pamphlet about the exhibition that tells you the story backwards and through footnotes. I love the first footnote where it spells it out, "You have probably come here, to this pamphlet, looking for some answers, some authority to make clean of what spills before you . Unfortunately I am no authority, no answer. Simply the organizer, I am another voice; another rock in the rubble, or better, someone beside, picking through too. I may have helped set this in motion, but honestly, the spark cannot explain the explosion."
Writers and Artists
These two collaborations between writers and artists got me to thinking about text in installations. I really enjoyed the way Van Jorden took a photographer's work and breathed new meaning into it with each poem. Also the way L.L.S.P. asks you to believe in this crazy story and still blocked out portions of the text so you don't know everything that happened. What I realized is I am interested in artists who collaborate with a piece of text and in how that text becomes the basis for a body of work.
This made me think of Andrea Bowers" show at Artpace. Bowers is showing two projects, Letters to an Army of Three (2005), from her solo show at RedCat in LA, and Eulogies to One and Another (2006), a group of drawings that are somewhat related but feel a bit disjointed. Now, I have been a fan of Bowers" work ever since Letters to an Army of Three was shown at Glassell earlier this year, but the works I am most interested in from the Artpace show are the Eulogies. These pieces feel like collaborations with a piece of text from the news media. They are described as paper "monuments" to Marla Ruzicka and Faiz Ali Salim, civilians traveling through the war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq who got killed.
Eulogies to One and Another comprises 20 framed black and white drawings that look lifted from various media outlets — newspapers and internet sites —and that talk about the events surrounding the death of the two civilians. One set of 10 has the full story laid out, and the other 10 have everything blocked out except for the names of the civilians and very specific details about their death. Much in the same manner of the pamphlet from L.L.S.P., Eulogies to One and Another recounts a tragic incident in a form where information is blacked out.
Recreating these pages with the most delicate hand, Bowers has fashioned "monuments" that you really need to be alone with in a room, free to sit and spend some time with them. Bowers makes me believe that these pages can inspire and tell the stories of these two civiilians long after their death and much more so than the article itself in the newspaper.
Further thought about text as material or text/material brought me to Lawrence Weiner. I heard one time that he refers to himself as a materialist, not a conceptual artist. I liked the idea that he sees the text as material, just like clay that you can shape and form.
Weiner's show at Lawrence Markey really needs to be seen in connection with the corresponding book, both of which are such a treat. It is rare that someone can make a book where you really feel something with each turn of the page. Weiner's book, Henry The Navigator In A Sea Of Sand , is a small, hand-stitched, typeset story either for or about San Antonio. I love that he made it in both English and Spanish, on facing pages. There are even gold and silver rectangles on the pages inside that play opposite one another.
Inside the gallery on the main entrance wall is a giant text taken from the book: "Away from the Wind. / Away from the Sun. / Away from the Rain. / Away from the Snow. / Away from the Sand / & / Away from the Tumbled Tumbleweed." The letters are in all caps and are broken up line-by-line much like a poem, but they resonate as building blocks or Lego pieces. They seem to take up the whole room just by appearing on that main wall to greet you.
Weiner has a way with structure and color. The book cover is a nice brown material with the title in black. Then you open it up to a solid red page, after which the story unfolds on white pages with black text, red arrows, silver/gold rectangles and blue lines. The wall piece at Markey shows the same attention to detail: big silver letters with black outlines to make them pop. The letters become forms that are built material instead of words on a page or painted letters on a wall.
I realized in viewing these exhibitions that I am curious about work that is handling text as material, presenting different types of collaboration and manipulating video to transform/transport viewers within the space. Each of these exhibitions explores one or more aspect of those ideas, and together they form an intriguing whole.
All quotes are taken from the catalogue or pamphlet from each exhibition.
Images courtesy the writer, testsite and Artpace.
Rachel Cook is the editor for Glasstire.