NAC in Williamsburg

Jessie Stead @ Soloway

By the time my eyes adjust to the strobe light chopping through the blacked out gallery, I’ve found an inflatable plastic couch whose cup holders are stuffed with yellow highlighters. The couch is filmy and in a moment I realize why; a bubble machine set up beside one of the strobes is blowing gumball size soap orbs up from behind the couch so that they fall and pop pretty much squarely on the head of anyone seated where I’m sitting, which seems to be the only place to park one’s rear end.

This installation is like a sensory deprivation tank that’s been retooled to overwhelm. It has the ambience of an onslaught: lights flash and comingle, projections spread across the walls at canted angles, bubbles rise up and plastic bottles hang from the ceiling. Meanwhile the sounds of night, and possibly of escape, pump through a speaker, engulfing without completely drowning out the strobe’s steady flicker and the whizzing hum of projectors. I’m glad for a couch to sit on, even if it’s soapy.

partial view from the couch

Both projectors are perched up on high shelves and propped such that their rectangles of light fall on the walls in opposing slants. From my spot on the couch I watch the video starring a young woman, the artist perhaps, in novelty sunglasses eating a marshmallow. The footage is coarse, which makes chewing look especially labored. Hard to say if she’s enjoying that marshmallow at all, though given that the video appears to be on a loop it seems fair to say that this scene of consumption, like Sisyphus rolling his boulder, could go on without end. She may never finish eating that marshmallow.

Up from the couch, I attend to a mound of marshmallows piled on a transparent platform that’s maybe four inches above the ground. A green strobe pulses beneath it. I hunker down on my belly and notice the platform is mounted on wheels, the shape of which is like a slim cousin of the plump, spongy, gelatinous confections above. I don’t think marshmallows ever go bad and in that sense they possess a kind of quasi immortality, an ongoing forever-ness that corresponds to the looped video and serves as a counterpoint to the ephemerality of the bubbles popping on the couch. These marshmallows have a slightly sweet smell, but I have no desire to tear at one with my teeth.

The other projector emits the blue background of a start-up screen, as if a video is waiting to begin. A crystal as big as half dollar hangs like a tear beside the whirring machine’s one bright eye, diffracting a bit of the blue and giving the impression that the rectangle of light is maybe shedding or breaking up like an iceberg in warm waters. One and two liter bottles hang from the ceiling on thin strings between the projector and the wall upon which its beam primarily falls, casting shaggy shadows. From certain angles the bottles look like they’re just floating, immune to gravity.  A slight breeze blowing above my head gives them an almost imperceptible sway. It’s the subtlest of movements, but every detail seems like a reward in this space, which altogether blunts one’s perception with a deluge of audio-visual information.

The record player sits atop a tall black plinth, chest-high, and spins a square that’s clear and flat. It’s mesmerizing to gaze upon, and I begin to zone out tracking one corner of the square on its quick revolutions. The soundtrack is a customized cacophony: an air horn in the distance resounds amidst footfall through something crunchy; the song of cicadas is punctuated by a hooting owl. It’s not soothing. Quite the opposite actually, it’s making me anxious.

I see now that what’s blocking the windows and covering the ceiling lights are emergency blankets, thin and reflective as a foil. I feel suddenly very alone and more than mildly uneasy. My stomach turns. I imagine convicts on the lam and cosmonauts moving across terrain they’ve only previously dreamed about, a sense of freedom yoked to incredible vulnerability. I return to the couch.

This room is starting to take hold of me. Across all the walls the word “ambient” is stamped in shades of green, blue, and red. Broken ceiling panels are stamped, the marshmallows are stamped, I feel stamped. The repetition of the action seems analogous to the strobe’s pattern as well as to the video of the marshmallow eater endlessly putting sweet treat to mouth. The stamps are as uncountable as the bubbles drifting onto the plastic couch. I put my attention on another mostly empty 2-liter bottle with a finger size flashlight inserted in the vessel’s mouth. Its steadiness is settling. I get underneath it, supine at the couch’s base, and stare up at the light until it occupies my entire visual field. It’s my moon.

There are three canvases on the walls. One is stamped, one is blank, and one bares a smattering of faded yellow marks. The highlighters! I pull one out and scribble mercilessly. The marks fade in slow gradual increments, like the tension in my warm arm.

Up on the wall kitty-corner to my disappearing handiwork: a 35 mm negative of somebody in a pirate costume baring sword and hook with a tremendous grin. It’s been there the whole time, though there are maybe a dozen other slides sitting on  a light box looking ready to be loaded. Other projections could have been a rolling paper with the “ambient” stamp, or similarly stamped rolls of toilet paper. I like the pirate; it could be the installation’s mascot if the marshmallow eater is to be its icon. The joyful marauder’s pose is playfully aggressive and essentially antithetical to the deadpan motions of the affectless masticator. In fact, sitting here beside the light box, the pirate seems to function as a tonic to this otherwise agitating installation.

Settled, I step back out into the street and the daylight is blinding. For a good two blocks I can hardly see and with my vision so impaired I feel extra attentive to sounds of cars and pedestrians, to the sun’s warmth on my face and the smell of cooked meat. In other words, with my primary sense debilitated I actually seem to be more aware of the same street I walked down earlier, more alive and freshly receptive to the immediate ambience of the neighborhood. When a siren passes I pause to listen and as it fades into the distance my vision begins to emerge out of the adumbrating blear like a plane from a cloud bank. I’d begun to think of my temporary blindness as a vestige of my experience, but there is no way to hold on to such traces, though I did consider gazing up at the sun.  

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