Saturday, February 11, 2012

A Film by Michael Snow at the Wexner Center; Thoughts on Gallery Notes

Wexner Center for the Arts.
Photo by Brad Feinknopf
The Wexner Center for the Arts at The Ohio State University is a contemporary arts venue worthy of any city in the world. The Peter Eisenman building houses (among much more) four major galleries that ascend a hillside via a ramp illuminated by a high, angular canopy of glass. The wonderful art space balances airiness and gravitas. Though the walled walkway dramatically directs the eye toward the light from the window panes at the top, the ascent doesn't feel fatal. You may feel yourself gently inclining to a heavenly realm, but you don't have to die to achieve it.
Gallery ramp, Wexner Center for the Arts.
Photo by Brad Feinknopf
I had time to kill the other day before meeting a friend in the Wexner lobby. I decided to look into the little black box cinema, instead of browsing the bookshop. Every month, there's always something new playing—something a visitor can step into at any point—but I rarely go in for just the reason this trip reinforced: I get enthralled by the too-wonderful film that instantly seduces me away from my intended business. This modest theater appears peripheral to the architectural focus of the Stairway to Heaven. Its being easy to overlook, however, adds an ironically dependable element of surprise to every great experience that awaits the visitor.

I entered The Box via its truncated, black-painted hall. There's a quick jog into the tiny but very high space. The velvety blackness within is as smooth and disorienting as the time-travel that movies represent. After a few seconds, the light from the film helped me locate the four or five chairs scattered about so I could pull one to myself and sit.

What I saw on the screen (or wall? I couldn't tell in the dark) didn't really need a name or explanation. As far as my perception was concerned, everything before me was real. Nothing had been contrived, but existed, right there in front of me, in the same space, in the present.

The film was in medias res. It had no more plot than the relationship of a window, curtain, and wind do; no more than there is when idle observation of a breeze-blown curtain turns your thoughts inward.

I was watching a 62-minute color video shot by Michael Snow in 2002. It's titled Solar Breath (Northern Caryatids). Shot from a fixed camera, the scene is of a double casement window, the left half flung open, the right closed. The window is only slightly smaller than the area projected. It is covered by a light, white curtain, which hangs from a rod. A single panel covers both the open and the closed sides. It prevents our seeing the outside, turning the unseen landscape into a source of comfortable mystery.
Michael Snow, Solar Breath (Northern Caryatid).
Courtesy, Wexner Center for the Arts
The day is gusty. The curtain is alternately blown into the room and sucked against the window screen; we can hear the muffled blustering and flapping. The outside world is quiet, and so is the house, save for occasional sounds of people walking and the brief, contented exchanges of a man and woman somewhere "behind" us, in other rooms.

The location of this house is revealed only when the curtain rises high, allowing us quick glimpses behind the veil. If it sounds sort of erotic, it is sort of erotic—and tranquil. I found myself wide-eyed with anticipation for the next gust, which would disclose more. The curtain was like a stage drapery that would rise on a scene of life beyond the domestic, which occurred within the completely unseen world we attributed to the background residents of the house. Whatever was out there—the intermittently visible—was by definition a drama, defined by the lifting and falling of that rustling panel of white.

On another level, I found that this quiet film brought on waves of longing for recollected well-being. As a child, I often lay relaxed in bed watching flapping springtime curtains that played just this game, revealing flashes of blue sky. The breeze was simultaneously pleasant exterior and interior sensation—caressing on my skin, satisfying in my lungs. It was action a character at the same time. 
Michael Snow, Solar Breath (Northern Caryatids)
Courtesy, Wexner Center for the Arts
Like snow, the breeze transforms the world. But unlike the snow, the breeze changes the world invisibly. So this film, in conveying the wind's presence so convincingly left me achingly aware of absence. Each gust that lifted the curtain high made me yearn for something impossible to capture. I strained to fill my my body with the fresh air, with the breeze so evident in its secondary effects, yet wholly "invisible" to the primary sensation! 

There wasn't any wind in the film. The sound of the curtains, the visual capture of their movement with the illusion that the wind blows them toward me—it's all there. But the wind—the protagonist, the motive for everything in the film—is played by its ghost. It's represented only in our heads, by memory or by the particularized imagination of longing.

Why did Snow title this video, Solar Breath (Northern Caryatid)? To tell the truth, I don't really get it. "Northern" seems to explain itself in the course of the film, as setting. Caryatids are columns formed by statues of women, best known from the Erectheum of the Acropolis. They support the roof upon the baskets carried on their heads; full, draped garments fall around them. Perhaps the "caryatid" refers to the beauty of pleats and folds that the designing wind spontaneously fashions in the curtain? And "solar breath?" Wind is caused by the uneven heating of the Earth and its atmosphere by the sun.

I can't say that the title and my experience of the film come from the same world, and it's possible that I am disconnected from Snow's own themes. I found the film completely refreshing, and exciting. I didn't stay for 62 minutes—about half is more like it. I hope Snow would be glad that I was delighted by his work. Would he be offended that I didn't discover a meaning the title directs me to? Perhaps.

As I left The Box, I picked up a two-sided card innocuously provided, with some discussion about the film. I was indeed curious to know some more; perhaps I'd be enlightened about the title and the artist.

For scholars of film and for anyone abreast of contemporary art news and theory, the analysis of Solar Breath by J. Ronald Green, professor of film studies in the Department of Art History at The Ohio State University, is a gold mine. His essay, printed on that gallery card, is informed by his knowledge of modernism, minimalism and a broad swathe of contemporary art. He mentions "Ann Hamilton-like skirts of a Canadian caryatid," and makes a comparison to "shifting clouds within the frame of James Turrell's Skyspace installations." Such addition of information and idea should only be good, shouldn't it?

"A 35-minute glissando of a sine-wave audio tone is the main sound track of that film [Snow's Wavelength], which rhymes with and parallels the 45-minute zoom. Those two morphing phenomena form the basis for a complex time/space system, somewhat like the working of a representational destiny machine."

This is text from the only commentary available to the film's audience. That group presumably includes not only film scholars and art historians, but curious, non-specialist art explorers too.To provide only a document lodged in professional language, unsupplemented by something less technical, strikes me as too bad. I found Green's ideas about a solar-driven machine to be very interesting, but after I'd had a couple of days to think about them. 

If I had read that card as I went in, I might have concluded that I would be in over my head. I doubt that I could have had quite the unvarnished experience that I did. I may well have regretted that I "missed the point" or felt apologetic for the simple and sensual pleasure that I had. I'd have gone in feeling wanting: I lacked background in Snow's work and the thought of his colleagues. I'd feel like an inferior viewer with an expert looking over my shoulder.

I'm sure that the real Professor Green doesn't worry about anyone's reception of Snow's film. But scholarly language strikes hard against the viewer's ear; it is not the language of invitation. The focused points suggested in a scholar's essay narrow rather than broaden what the general viewer will concentrate on in their direct experience of the art work. Curators need to remember that many people have had to overcome personal misgivings about intellectual or cultural authority just to get themselves as far as a contemporary art venue in the first place.
Unless it's looking for an audience of learned or "qualified" viewers only, I don't think that Wexner should assume that its visitors all speak the same arcane language. Academic language may discourage as many visitors as it intrigues and provide only dry crumbs to feed the open-minded viewer's curiosity. 

Contemporary art often strikes me as available for engagement by open-minded and curious audiences. The works of independent, exploratory artists today constitute accessible challenges. Viewers can start from scratch and think their own ways into the activities of thought and execution, in effect joining the artist's process. Contemporary art can fascinate viewers through many kinds of mental activities that are not purely analytical or bloodlessly abstract. 

But once we get into theories and posited connections that cannot come directly from the viewer's experience of the art, we undercut their own connection—exuberant, sensual, or philosophical—with the piece. Unless the viewer is a specialist, she is unlikely to be prepared at first or second viewing for the sort of scholarly essay provided for Snow's film, though the film students should appreciate and discuss it.

In any gallery space, the notes should be given the utmost consideration. Who needs them or wants them, and why? Who are they written for? What are they meant to promote? What are the possible perverse outcomes of any particular notes proposed?

For contemporary art venues like Wexner, I think its an important first principle that the eager and curious—open-minded people who come to explore and learn—don't want to feel punished or patronized for giving contemporary art a go. Even when materials can be provided in great sincerity by fine scholars, they don't always fit the audience and can even depress it. Nor should expert art lovers ever be fed pabulum, silenced or neglected; at present they are not. 

Intellectuals are people who think broadly and deeply about the world, no matter what information they bring to a situation. Wexner is a fine house for intellectuals. Surely it's possible to address both the more and less informed groups without discouraging either and to the stimulation of all.

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