The press release describes the ‘no-place’ of utopia as a place “where distant voices meet and fertilize”. It tells of the coming together of Chilean singer Victor Jara and Iranian poet Ahmad Shamloo who entered Jara’s world by grace without encounter, and translated some of her songs, which, years later connected Iranian-born Changalvaee and Chilean-born Tennen.
Future Remnants of a Missing Word will look at how the memory of brutality in history breathes when society does not face it, and that while histories do not mirror each other, analogies can recall one another.
You could be forgiven for not noticing where the art begins. A strange and wonderful effect of the Wet Eyes exhibit at Meyohas, running November 20, 2015, to January 10, 2016, —an apartment gallery on the Upper East Side—strikes me on my second walk through the pieces. The works and space bleed into each other, jostling in a friendly way to determine the context for all the other art. The result is multiple and simultaneous contexts, a tapestry of meaning that shifts with the eyes’ movements. I start on the carpet past the kitchen, and notice how dirty it is. Shapes are scrawled into it. I find myself peering down, discovering my immersion in ‘rosie path; magic carpet’(2015)by Daniel Klaas Beckwith, a carpet dirtied and scrawled with symbols. The overall impression is of hieroglyphs chalked into a rug. A number of the images clearly represent objects –there is a sword and saw, for example –while others are more ambiguous. A crozier and cross shaped patch suggests traditional insignia of a bishop’s authority, a fascinating evocation of hierarchy and authority which lies only a few feet from another ambiguous image, one that looks a lot like the Zen enso, the incomplete circle representing totality, emptiness and infinity. After a few minutes of peering at the carpet I’m struck by my physical posture: crouched, bent, unconsciously remolded to decipher the world beneath my feet.
When I raise my eyes to the wall on my left, I see a small black frame holding a glossy black square, with small white letters at the bottom. They read: “If you’re reading this, you’ve been in a coma for just over six years now. we’re trying a new technique to reach you. we don’t know where this message will end up in your dream but we hope we’re getting through. please wake up! we miss you very much.” This is ‘pervert’s lament’ (2015)by Joseph Buckley. Oddly titled but entrancing, this piece plays counterpoint to Beckwith’s ‘rosie path…’. Where that one leads to a subtle deepening of my sense of embodiment through the search for meaning, ‘pervert’s lament’absorbs me by causing a moment of hyper-awareness and reflexivity about the divisibility of consciousness and physical reality. Looking up from the words’ invitation to dream in a coma, I see a disembodied faceless head, and realize it’s my head, its features obscured in the blank black surface. By peering at the words in the frame I become part of the art, absorbed literally in its frame, figural and literal, a kind of allegory of a mind lost, enacting the text itself. I step back into the world around me as if stumbling from a trance.
Crossing the carpet with ‘pervert’s lament’I see Buckley’s second piece, ‘Pervert’s Lament’ (2015), an equally oddly titled installation, capitalised this time. The windows of the gallery have been covered with a matte black material. All exterior light is blocked and only the artificial glare of the ceiling lamp is reflected back into the room. The effect on the windows of Meyohas is almost medieval, like a diabolical corruption of stained glass. Enframing the entire living area its effect is subtle, altering the environment in which the other works are experienced.
Walking across the bare wood floor to peer at the blackened windows I nearly stumble over Beckwith’s second piece, ‘Spelt’ (2015). What appears to be a pile of Lucky Charms half spilled from a plastic bag lie on the floor, as if a hungry and lazy toddler had given up its snack in boredom. Amused and curious, I once again find myself looking at the ground, this time to discover that the pieces are each handmade and don’t conform exactly to said cereal’s pattern, although the marshmallows look tasty. There are symbols I don’t recognize. Like the carpet, they suggest meanings but stop short of saying anything definite. My amusement mingles with fascination and admiration, for upon closer investigation I discover two things at the same time. First, I’m crouched almost on my knees, my body once again suborned in the task of decipherment, and second, the pieces of cereal, while still amusing, begin to suggest a syllabary of a language I didn’t know. Part nonsense, part child’s play, yet interpretation all the way down.
The penultimate piece that greets me as I continue my walk is a video by Zak Arctander, ‘Taconic’ (2015). The first moments of the film are scenes of the construction of the exhibit itself, and close-ups of artist and curator Sarah Meyohas, owner of the eponymous gallery, which then morphs into a juxtaposition of slow-motion walks through Manhattan and shots from a car on the highway. Many of the shots come from Arctander’s commute into the city, but the rapid cuts between shots and the film score produce a highly eerie effect, as if something is about to happen. The blend of sudden changes in music across a variety of styles along with images of pedestrians in New York creates a sense of mundane enchantment and strangeness. It’s a dense four minutes of visual meaning that invites interpretation yet resists description.
By this point an overarching effect of the Wet Eyes exhibition is sinking through me. I feel as if there is a conspiracy among the pieces to evoke the sacred in the mundane, to highlight the semantic possibilities of everyday objects and spaces as charged and unstable carriers of significance and interest. If only one looked at the world askew, took time to bend one’s knees or reflect on the light bouncing off the windows, eyes closed in a sun defying sleep, mirroring the world in a room back to me.
Whether by the alchemy of happy chance or Meyohas’ curatorial skills, the last piece I visit seems to contain in microcosm these nudges towards transcendence in the world, not beyond it. A porcelain-tiled booth protruding from the kitchen wall is covered with a velvet curtain hanging on a shower rod. I step through it and enter Jonathan Mildenberg’s ‘Conversations’ (2015), which looks like a bathroom. It could be a shower or toilet stall, except the actual toilet and shower are missing. The tiles are on the outside, like an exoskeleton. The interior is painted a boring color, the kind you might expect if you bred a strip mall with the average commercial bathroom. A metal bar on the back wall greets my eyes, which then see a white towel folded up on the floor, a foot from a mirror on the right wall. The mirror’s size and position means I can only see the middle of my legs. Curious. I’m about to bend down when a puff and then mechanical noise startles me. I looked up to see – and smell – an automatic air freshener dispenser high on the left wall. I turn down to the towel, this time struck by its positioning and the shape of the room, which could as easily have been a prayer closet for a hyper-sanitary suburban monk. To see one’s face in the mirror requires that I kneel down onto the towel. Because it’s an artwork in a gallery, I do so gingerly, already amused, intrigued, and slightly disorientated by the room and its purpose. Only when I am fully in view of myself do I experience a strange sense of wonder. Here I am, kneeling reverently in this ironic room of bodily cleansing, sheltered from the rest of the gallery by the dark velvet curtain; for the third time bent over, halfway towards prostration. This time, though, I’m comfortably settled on the towel beneath me, my knees firmly on the ground towards which Beckwith’s pieces have already pulled me twice.
Exiting ‘Conversations’I feel the softness of the curtain even as I leave Meyohas and drive back to Brooklyn. Absurdity and childish play is somehow seamlessly woven into a search for meaning; silliness and sacredness merged in mundane objects and images. Transcendence and prayer in a shower stall, accompanied by puffs of air freshener. A metaphor, an allegory, perhaps, of modern America’s tangled relationship with bodies and meaning –sacred and secular? **