|Video: Salt Lake
Paul Guinan and Anina Bennett discuss fact and fiction
In June, Paul Guinan and Anina Bennett visited Salt Lake City, stopping at The Leonardo for a two-week residency before offering workshops during the Utah Arts Festival. In their innovative books the artist couple (he's the images, she's the words) creates a hybrid of history and fiction wrapped up in a heavy dose of steampunk aesthetic. Their narratives are illustrated tromps of fictional characters through real historic landscapes. They first garnered attention with Boilerplate, a cylindrical robot whose military escapades have him join Teddy Roosevelt, Pancho Villa and the boys in the trenches of the first World War. Their second creation, Frank Reade, resurrects an early science fiction character out of a 19th-century dime store novel series. Both books are now available at The Leonardo, in conjunction with exhibitions featuring images from both books. In this video interview they discuss the technique and purpose of blending fact and fiction.
Exhibition Review: Salt Lake
Triffids Land at Leonardo! Take Cover!
Philip Beesley's Hylozoic Veil
Just when you thought Salt Lake was a nice, quiet town, a sculptural installation at The Leonardo will make you think again. Dangling over the foyer like "Olympic Tower’s" demonic sister, "Hylozoic Veil" by Philip Beesley creates a dramatic addition to the museum and more generally, to sculpture in Salt Lake. It also joins an international coterie of triffids threatening world invasion.
Unlike the protagonists of John Wyndham’s 1951 novel, "Hylozoic Veil" is more subdued, preferring to attach itself to the bowels of the building, rather than traipsing around the city. Extending vertically and horizontally from inside The Leoardo’s roof, a motley crew of materials include plastic fronds, electric lights, vials and suspension wires. Eight diagrams displayed on the top floor explain that these are really “breathing pores, swallowing actuators, filter cluster drones, and silicon tongue extensions.” Within this circuitry, a ‘liquid system’ purporting to share properties of living organisms is housed in a network of alembics and ampules. The purpose of these in relation to the rest of the sculpture is unclear, and functions as a gratuitous (though beautifully antiquated) chemistry set.
This behemoth of gadgetry is linked by a ‘dense array of microprocessors, sensors and actuator systems’ which lead to a master control board that activates "Hylozoic Veil’s" responsiveness. Manifesting as twitches, ripples, contractions and light bursts, such manoeuvers are prompted by the presence of a visitor. In this way, the work alludes to the riddle of whether a sound is made in the woods, if nobody is there to hear it. "When you walk through this environment," Beesley explains, "there are arrays of space sensors all the way through which track your movement and know where you are. And they start breathing and rippling all through the environment and it has a kind of a presence which is nearly alive." Some have likened this to a ‘giant lung, breathing in and out around visitors.’ How cool this would be if it actually worked. During my visit -- eight months after it was first installed -- Hylozoic Veil was positively dormant, despite the many kisses I blew. It left me feeling nostalgic for the truly mobile work of Alexander Calder.
At the heart of many Science Fiction fantasies lies the desire to replicate life, or at the very least, to isolate its essence. Movement has long been the philosopher’s stone of this pursuit, as witnessed by a long line of dolls, automata and robots dating back to the Renaissance. (In fact, it really dates back to the Golem who, activated by divine intervention, became Adam). As roaming houseplants with a ferocious appetite for the British public, triffids belong in this camp too.
Beyond this mechanistic approach, artists conceived other criteria upon which to pin their hopes. For years, mimesis was the holy grail of the art world, and fueled by devices such as chiaroscuro and perspective, contributed to the appearance of Life. In this spirit, Zeuxis hoped to paint grapes so convincing, even the birds would be fooled. A substrate of this paradigm ventures beyond the looking glass, into the more emotive side of identity. Pygmalion desired a sculpture he could love; Frankenstein a bride, the Tin Man a heart. Pinocchio yearned to be a real boy, as did Leo Lionni’s wind-up-mouse. Blade Runner’s sultry replicant Rachel clung to her false memories, in the hopes that she too might be human.
Here, "Hylozoic Veil" is in good company. It wants desperately to live, as evinced in the media statements generated by both Beesley and The Leonardo. Moreover, the artist’s website states that his environments pursue a “distributed emotional consciousness.” However hopeful – and Orwellian – as this sounds, this collection of disparate systems remains inert and impotent.
Hyperbole aside, Beesley’s work has many other worthwhile attributes including a surfeit of references that are as enchanting as they are delightful. Basic geometric shapes such as bell curves, tetrahedrons, ellipses and chevrons abound. Among them, human morphologies such as tongues, limb joints, spine vertebrae and eyelashes are evoked. Woven together with exposed wires and circuit boards, this cyborg amalgam harbors three distinct landscapes. The system cascades down the museum atrium with a kind of buoyancy, as if floating in water. This brings to mind forests of seaweed or fluorescent jellyfish blooms suspended in the darker recesses of the ocean, like the underwater paintings of Alfred Kubin. With tendrils so crystalline and frozen, we could just as easily be peering into the lair of an evil Snow Queen. Here, it may be useful to know that the artist is a professor of architecture at the University of Waterloo, and possibly referencing the formidable Canadian winter. Set against a pitch-black background, we are also reminded of remote astronomical clusters, nebulae and galaxies glimpsed at by the Hubble Space Telescope. Perhaps "Hylozoic Veil" depicts a rogue centaurian system, the outer reaches of the Klingon empire, or a fragment of our own Milky Way? Such references are sufficient to keep me transfixed : gazing and wondering.
Wondering.... IS this a triffid? Should we take cover? To date, hylozoic replicants have set foot in Venice, Montreal and New Orleans. Triffids tend to lie dormant for long periods of time, preferring to hide in museums and masquerade as contemporary art. Has Beesley truly imbued his work with Life? Does Salt Lake have a triffid problem? Only time will tell. Not until "Hylozoic Veil" breaks free from the shackles of The Leonardo, slithers up to Temple Square to embrace the golden statue of Moroni, will we know for sure.
superHUMAN and New Mystics . . . from page 1
Rojas and Hawkins lay out an extensive list of fictional precedents that they distinguish from art per se, including mythology, folklore, and such popular entertainments as comic books, pulp novels, and science-fiction films. Pointing to the near-universal popularity manifested by heroes—meaning individuals possessed of prodigious powers—including those that currently dominate Hollywood, they gathered art works that exploit the power of such narrative archetypes to affect broad cultural values. In the simplest form (and vestiges of such transformations are visible here) that could mean a superhero with ethnic characteristics not widely associated with popular icons. Given the probable division of the audience into those who already agree with the artists and those who firmly reject their cause, there are arguably only a handful of strategies that can prevent such works from quickly boring or alienating the audience. One is for the art to be sufficiently entertaining to compete, in its own way, with entertainments that possess far greater resources. The juxtaposition of familiar tropes and clever surprises play a part. So does humor. William Pope.L’s video, "The Great White Way," in which a skinny black man with glasses, three characteristics that variously undermine his superhero costume, laboriously crawls through New York City (see image page 1), is a funny idea that in actual fact makes viewers as uncomfortable as it does the accidental witnesses who found themselves recast from bystanders to unwitting extras.
Pope.L takes advantage of his identity to subvert racial sensitivity, giving him an edge over mass-market entertainments. It also gives him a way to exploit the sympathy of the far larger portion of the audience that fancies itself free of prejudice and inherently sympathetic to his predicament. Xaviera Simmons, in "Untitled (Pink),"|1| and Chitra Ganesh, in "Hidden Trails,"|2| make similar use of female nudity to take their work places male artists hesitate to venture. For someone disinterested in superheroes, though, their familiar themes—confrontation with dangers both known and unknown, from wild animals to personal transformation—and their presumed resolution through individual courage lacked novelty in either theme or execution, in spite of exotic locales and evocative details. Perhaps the Internet and Lonely Planet have undermined the whole idea that anything is exotic any more.
Maybe that’s why Dulce Pinzon’s photographs of actual Latin American immigrants doing the jobs they actually do, in the actual places they work, accompanied by citations of the amounts of money they are able to earn here to send home, convey a stronger sense of heroism.|0| Here only the costumes seem out of place, and the irony in that is for the viewer to discover, rather than the artist to belabor. In "Self-Portrait as Azua (The Fall 2),"|3| Shaun El C. Leonardo uses sign-painters enamels on a cut-out image floating away from the wall, a bold combination that works with his unconventional pose—a powerfully-built body tumbling over backwards, its arms, legs, and head dangling passively—to create an image that demands attention and sticks in the mind. Like Pope.L, and Pinzon, he makes sure we see his characters’ Kryptonite: the vulnerability that gives superheroes their human dimensions.
Given the venue and the publicity, it’s surprising how few of the works here employ experimental techniques like video. Most are comics-related and show off the kind of graphic invention and surface versatility that has made comix (to use Art Spiegelman’s combined term) one of the most influential media, in spite of rejection by galleries and collectors, for over a century. In "Horoscope Woman,"|4| Kevin Darmanie channels Robert Williams while relocating the image of aquatic culture from the beach to the swimming pool. Blanka Amezkua seizes actual comic imagery and makes them her own, using nail enamels to overwhelm and repurpose their bold graphics.|5| Elsewhere, Wanda Raimundi-Ortiz’s "Wepa Woman, Exile," |6| raises the question why her enlarged comic pages belong on the gallery wall, rather than in one of the so-called graphic novels that appear to have inspired it. Kerry James Marshall’s "Dailies from Rythm Mastr" |7| captured attention with their large size and spontaneous, memoir-like feel, but also resorted to gimmicks that do the printer’s equivalent of what actors call breaking the fourth wall. They called attention to the medium without employing the disbelief-shattering innovations of Will Eisner. And speaking of the history that stretches behind these artists, whether they know it or not, no one should make the mistake of thinking there is anything here more street-smart, more gritty and realistic, than what appeared in the pages of The Spirit as early as 1940.
Still, those ordinary, and very real citizens who were caught trying to figure out how to react to a black superhero crawling past at their feet, fitted out in an elaborate costume but accompanied by a meager crew, may have paused to marvel, not at his narrative deeds, but rather at his having found the means and the courage to live out his vision in a necessarily pubic space. Maybe, in an age where an artist’s life may have a greater impact than his or her work, that’s the real message of superHUMAN.
For anyone needing a little more reason to make the drive to Ephraim, and who hasn’t yet seen C.C.A. Christensen’s family cabin in its new guise as adjunct gallery to the CUAC, New Mystics provides an opportunity to stand in the original Utah landscape master’s studio and compare his impact on our collective imaginations with the work of today’s masters, including Fidalis Buehler, Tyrone Davies, Allen Ludwig, Fionn McCabe, and Art Morrill.
Every one of these artists demonstrates loyalty to the spirit of the now through the use, in some form, of collage technique. For Allen Ludwig, that means simulating a corner of the studio (or of the mind) with an accidental-seeming array, including digital prints that look hand made and painted panels that mimic computer software components.|8| The feeling of collage arises in Art Morrill’s portraits in two ways: the faces are built from an assortment of graphic devices, and placed on a variety of pre-existing plywood surfaces that work like prepared grounds.|9| Buehler sticks to conventional paper for his mixed media paintings, on which naive forms suggest tales from the dawn of time, once told in pictoglyphs but here given solid form inside sophisticated representation of space. Arguably the most sophisticated collages are the mash-ups of Fionn McCabe, which seem to capture the graphic-fueled revolution in our vision at the moment of its equivalent of the Big Bang.|10| In this context, Tyrone Davies three-minute video, Word, calls attention to the technical fact that collage is in the very nature of film.|11|
What an artwork hangs next to can make us see it in a whole new way, and a once-in-a-lifetime assemblage like this can change the way we see the whole world.