In 1968, the Scottish-Canadian experimental filmmaker Norman McLaren found a new use for an optical printer, a device that copies motion picture films. Any moving image will consist of a sequence of still images, each briefly flashed before the eye while the mind builds a version of the original motion using a neurological phenomenon called persistence of vision. Making a working copy requires reproducing each of these still pictures in sequence on a fresh piece of film or tape. The printer used to copy film is both a projector and a camera, the former projecting the original film into the latter. McLaren’s insight led him to stop the projector while the camera went on filming, thus causing the image to freeze on the copy. He then rewound both films and ran them again. Doing this once could make a moving figure split into two that perform a pas de deux, then reunite. Many passes might compound an image into an undulating transparency: a static dancer’s limbs multiplying like petals of a blossoming flower, or a moving figure becoming a conga line. The technique has become a mainstay of special-effects filming, often used to violent effect, but usually lacking McLaren’s powerful aesthetic impact. Such techniques can only compound the qualities present in the original, not create beauty or expression where they are lacking. At some point, the best results achieve a visual effect analogous to what musicians call polyphony (pall-if’n-ē), in which the separate voices interact to form a third melody not present in either part by itself. This brings us to Shigeyuki Kihara and the eighth salt exhibit at UMFA.
Galu Afi: Waves of Fire, and Siva in Motion, the two videos that comprise salt 8, run continuously and simultaneously on adjacent walls of a small gallery on the second floor. It’s no hyperbole to say they make superb, even brilliant use of McLaren’s expansive technique. One would like to call them ‘breath-taking,’ were not their purpose and effect so clearly to give and not to take, to restore breath—breath as meditation—and promote self-centering, calm, and emotional and psychic health. In each the artist appears, highlighted against a dark background that all but renders her an outline, dressed in dark, close-fitting, subdued attire, facing the camera at mid-closeup range. And she dances. Given the titles, it comes as no surprise that her dance isn’t Western, but falls solidly in the great Southwest Asian and Pacific island tradition of eloquent gesturing. Her face passive, her torso occasionally swaying side-to-side or front-to-back, she primarily dances with her arms, the part of the body capable of the most expressive gestures. Think of sign language, or cultures, like Italian, where a manual vocabulary so compliments the verbal that it can even substitute for speech at times. Think of the ethnically distinct, but geographically related Polynesian talking dance: the Hula.
Shigeyuki Kihara brings her arms up, then bends her hands ninety degrees at the wrist and begins a sinuous sequence of rotations that spread to her arms. For those immersed in her culture, the expression may be not only eloquent but succinct. But for everyone, what happens next transforms the experience. She freezes, holds a pose, yet continues at the same time, stopping again, and still moving on, trailing behind a kind of slowly-fading diagram. The effect is to multiply time, just as a prose writer does by use of multiple tenses. The story-like nature of the dance’s unfolding gestures moves backwards and forwards in time, referring to the past, present, and future, while the complexity of observation the single voice might lose or belie is restored in effect. She’s haunting, mysterious, specific by turns. Enchanting, hypnotic, absorbing.
There are a couple of ways to approach salt 8. One, advocated here, is to just walk into the gallery and watch. Another would be to view the performance through the eyes of others. There is a large text on the wall that answers some questions a viewer may have. There is also a pamphlet that gives the history of Kihara’s work and some of the cultural history it comes out of. Both begin with factual answers to probable questions: the artist is Samoan, the dance she performs, the taualuga, serves to climax a social event: it is a dance of summation and parting. Some of these facts may enrich the experience. Knowing that she wears a Victorian-era, British mourning dress lends resonance, a sense that she bids farewell to her lost heritage even as it invokes the European incursion responsible for her loss. But other stated facts are dubious at best: the Victorian era was not more hazardous than the centuries that preceded it. Rather, the world-wide emphasis on mortality and the vogue for dressing in mourning was a fad started by Queen Victoria herself in the aftermath of her husband Albert’s premature death. Like all manias, for tulips or real estate, it was a time of extremes: witness the elaborate jewelry, made of numerous hand-ground and polished parts, every bit of it literally jet black.
There’s not much point in arguing about the importance of the scholarly back-story that accompanies Galu Afi: Waves of Fire and Siva In Motion. Today’s artists are expected to provide handholds that permit curators to scale their monuments in such ways. It used to be that such materials might be presented as footnotes to the work, which however the viewer was expected to encounter directly. One recognized the various qualities of a work—its unity of expression, balance, poise, voice—and based on taste and judgment, both evaluated the work and measured the pleasure one felt. Then, if interested, one could move on to the academic assessment. Then somehow the cart moved before the horse, took its place as the center of interest. Cultural changes may account for this inversion. A connoisseur may have been an autocrat, but she got there by way of a humbling apprenticeship. Today’s wealthy collector may prefer to take the shortcut, accepting the judgment of paid authorities and learning a few phrases to caption a response. Yet nothing, except a glad-handing curator, prevents viewers from making the direct approach to the art, after which they can pursue the ‘explanation’ as far as desired. And then, after the tragic and sensual dimensions of Samoan life have been connected to the universal human pattern they parallel, we can go back into that room on the second floor, and marvel again at the marriage of ancient creativity and modern technology, still feel the urge to cry and laugh at the same time, and not know which is which.
salt 8: Shigeyuki Kihara continues at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts through January 5, 2014. The artist will perform Taualuga: The Last Dance Wednesday, October 23 at the UMFA at 6 pm. The event is free.
Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.