Public vs. Private: Who Owns the Light?
Sean Slemon and Herman Dutoit at CUAC
by Geoff Wichert
From ten feet away it appears that in Tied Up/Tied Down, Sean Slemon has filled a shadow box with bits of leafy foliage and then overlaid lengths of orange ribbon in Xs in front to enclose the space, interrupt the gaze, and rupture any Romantic connection between viewers and this bit of Nature. Slemon, whose medium is the installation, has placed this work in an alcove in the CUAC gallery, so that one approaches it straight on, rather than walking along a wall where the initial view is close up. As the viewer draws near, the illusion collapses into a digital photograph of a tree bound by the plastic tape used in urban settings to support and control trees planted in concrete surroundings: the work not of gardeners but of architects and engineers for whom plants are versatile ornaments compromised by high maintenance costs.
Upstairs in the gallery’s mezzanine, Slemon has hung nine stills from a video in what amounts to a narrow hallway, so they must be viewed close up and in a sequence that simulates the narrative encounter in the film. The contrast between these two installations makes clear that while he emphasizes the cerebral content, the social and political issues that preoccupy him, Slemon understands that visual art must first engage the eye. So he brings something of the Baroque era’s sense of theatricality and illusion to works that intrigue the eye but also demand active exploration by the body. As his drawings and sculptures demonstrate, in order to make viewers’ think urgently about how we exploit light and nature it is first necessary for us to truly see these materials. We need our senses to convince us they are real, and this is one place where the acquired skills of art can still find employment.
An example present here only in drawings simulates light rays using enormous wooden beams painted black. In his accompanying lecture, Herman Dutoit quoted the artist as saying he would have made them of concrete had it been practical, in order to make their ephemeral presence as substantial as possible. In Solid Light, crossed, Slemon confounds both reality and the conventions of representation by using charcoal to stand for light, leaving the surrounding white paper to stand for dark. In a different but equally bold statement of this theme, Potential sunlight mapped uses orange surveyor’s tape to postulate the path of light entering a window, crossing the room, and falling across the floor in an animated photo–graph of the source.
Installation demands a fertile imagination; even the small and sympathetic space of the CUAC defeats many attempts. Slemon imbues each work and its allied space with a separate identity, so that instead of seven similar paintings he sets up seven adventures, each requiring a unique response from viewers. The artificial light at night frames a view of the lawn next to the gallery, where the artist has staked out the pattern of electric light that would fall there from the window if it were dark outside. The view from upstairs is a revelation that mandates a stroll through the sculpture garden to view the pattern of light while standing on the ground.
In The ambiguous relationship between man and nature, four photographs of dead trees standing near structures weave across the gallery, hung not on a wall but freely in space. Each is sewn with dozens of orange threads that recall the fall of light while retaining the ambiguity of the title. Some of the threads are as straight as the ribbons, while others curl through space: Slemon points out that light is both a natural and a man-made material. A similar ambiguity enlightens the climactic work, a pixilated video of a tree that seems to gasp for breath as it grows to maturity and then is cut away. We might be less inclined to consider trees private property, more inclined to recognize them as public resources—or even as living creatures with some autonomous existence—after seeing ones entire life in captivity collapsed into two minutes and sixteen seconds.
Herman Dutoit on Sean Slemon’s Installation:
CUAC’s 2nd Annual Art Lecture Series
On September 19th, Herman Dutoit, the BYU Art Museum’s Director of Education, made the inaugural presentation of the CUAC’s second season of monthly art critic’s lectures and discussions. The choice of Dutoit to introduce Slemon’s art was particularly appropriate, since both men immigrated to the United States from South Africa, where each belonged in his turn to a necessarily self-aware and politically conscious art movement. While Dutoit focused on Slemon as in individual artist, his familiarity with the conditions that fostered the younger man’s art gains much from his own intimacy with those conditions.
The late stages of the minority White South African government’s apartheid policy brought intolerable pressure not only on the country’s Blacks and Coloreds, but on liberals, artists, and anyone disposed to original thought or free speech even among the Whites. According to Dutoit, this period saw the rise of a generation of artists involved in resistance to the status quo, many of whom were forced to leave the country in the face of increasingly oppressive and violent reaction by the apartheid regime. During the transition to majority rule a second generation of politically engaged artists emerged, Dutoit among them. They witnessed the political miracle surrounding the liberation of Nelson Mandela and the relatively bloodless transfer of power to the majority of South Africa’s citizens.
This is the legacy that Dutoit and his peers hoped to pass on to Slemon’s generation, but that project now appears doomed. Whatever magic allowed the authoritarian Nationalist Party to cede power to the African National Congress (ANC) seems unable to prevent the sadly familiar spectacle of a liberation movement’s becoming dictatorial under the influence of its newly found power.
A period of autocracy in South Africa by the ANC, comparable to that by the Communist Party in Russia and China, the PRI in Mexico, or Mugabe in Zimbabwe now seems inevitable.
For Slemon this past is prologue. Having come of age in a nation in turmoil over fundamental questions of identity and rights, he cannot but be aware of the importance of the public sphere in all human deliberations. In place of sharing his lyric and personal connection with trees or light, he asks us to consider how these vital interests become entangled in our relationships with each other. His art acknowledges that our engagement with the natural world is ultimately cultural and at the mercy of economic and popular forces.
It is probably ironic that the nearest point in Utah to the International Art Scene is behind the Wasatch Front, in a spot so remote that cell phones barely reach and weather satellites don’t cover it. The last two years have seen an array of international artists appear at the CUAC, in between its sterling exhibitions by regional and local figures. It is to be hoped that this ongoing series of lectures will tip the balance and persuade a few more of Utah’s passionate art audience to make the 90-minute drive to Ephraim. Watch the listings on page 10.
Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.
Categories: Exhibition Reviews