by Christina Martell
We’ve all had that moment, whether day- dreaming at our desks or staring longingly out a window, where we make a decision to take a trip and we begin to visualize what that journey might look like.
It starts with a dream, an ethereal idea rife with emotions of adventure; it’s a quick and free escape from the banal. We find ourselves attempting to materialize a new experience by placing our physical self with our mind’s eye into a rose-filtered postcard. What we are really doing is living in a state of “magical realism.” Travel, at its core, is one of the most effective transports to this ethereal world.
What we are really doing is living in a state of “magical realism.”
This fall we can experience magical realism on many plateaus with an ambitious exhibition that spans three locations: The Contemporary Austin downtown, the Visual Arts Center on The University of Texas campus and at The Contemporary’s Laguna Gloria site. Curated by Heather Pesanti, Senior Curator at The Contemporary Austin, Strange Pilgrims includes work in varied media by 15 artists: Charles Atlas, Trisha Baga, Millie Chen, Phil Collins, Andy Coolquitt, Ayşe Erkmen, Roger Hiorns, Nancy Holt, Lakes Were Rivers, Angelbert Metoyer, Bruce Nauman, Yoko Ono, Paul Sharits and Sof ía Táboas.
This exhibition will ask a lot of you—but take the leap of a journey unknown and you will probably discover things about yourself you never knew.
“The exhibition Strange Pilgrims begins with the metaphorical notion of the traveler: an open-ended journey through strange and unfamiliar spaces, embarking on a pilgrimage not only in time and place but also through imagination, the senses and perception.”
–exhibition description, The Contemporary Austin
Strange Pilgrims encompasses three distinct sites for engaging with artworks based on thematic sections: Environment & Place, Performance & Process, and Technology & Information. Deftly represented in these categories are artists who are both well established in the modern art canon, as well as younger artists working locally and collaboratively. Purposefully broad, this exhibition requires the viewer not only to experience many mediums of art, ranging from static to kinetic, video and sculptural installations with photography and film. It also requires a bit of travel to the different sites, which in its totality will solidify the metaphysical themes as well as accompany the physical traveler seeking new visuals and ideas.
As I set out on my personal journey to visit all the sites I quickly learned time and space were the most needed. Don’t expect to absorb all the spaces and works in one afternoon. To fully enjoy and contemplate this exhibition you have to set aside time and a mindset of reflection for each environment. Thankfully the exhibition is on view through 2016.
Beginning with Environment & Place at The Contemporary (one can begin at any location) and encountering Andy Coolquitt’s installation in the front gallery first seems like a lesson in indulgence, and, truthfully, is a bit off-putting. But, upon closer inspection one can see the artist’s deliberate choices of seemingly random objects arranged in some strange, unsettling story. This is what happens with a show of this nature. You are presented with works that might make you feel uncomfortable, but try spending a little time with them, and they may open up ideas and memories long forgotten.
This is what happens with a show of this nature. You are presented with works that might make you feel uncomfortable, but try spending a little time with them, and they may open up ideas and memories long forgotten.
Angelbert Metoyer’s, Untitled (Indigo Series A-Z), 1997–present, is more approachable but also layered in metaphor, with gold dust, mystical creatures and items of everyday use rendered inoperable. His works are like opening a large dusty history book with small print and faded images. They invite you to squint and get closer, walk around, smell them. He pulls from history and heritage to compile a story of greed, exoticism, worship and alchemy. The shrine to his ancestors encapsulates “Afrofuturism” as a conduit for ritual and injustice within the social historic African diaspora. You’ll be inspired to learn more about indigo blue and its significance in American history.
Not to be missed is the participatory installation by Bruce Nauman, Green Light Corridor, 1970. This will be a “geek out” moment for those art history students who only were able to read about this work in books. This seminal and monumentally historic work is surprisingly humanistic. You have to walk inside it to fully understand its power. You will also, most likely, experience it with other visitors, adding to the moment. It feels like being trapped in a subway: uncomfortable, yet exhilarating. This is the definition of a new perspective in space and light. Your skin color changes, your eyes dilate, and after the journey in the narrow corridor, you see a new intense light and color. Your eyes work differently—just don’t give away the ending to your friends as you recommend this experience.
Admiringly, Millie Chen’s video, Tour, 2014, was the most centering. The camera walks us backwards in first-person view through grass down a hill, away from a structure, while soporific siren songs engulf you. This is such a divergent space from the other works. It allows reflection, albeit with stark realization; for example, what happened in Murambi, Rwanda in 1994—the mass genocide of 65,000 Tutsis—is only addressed with a place and date. Andrew Wyeth’s famous painting, Christina’s World, came to mind, as the film has a sense of great loss and beauty in a stark natural setting. It was a needed visual breath and allowed the viewer to reflect on bigger-than-life issues, while also giving weary travelers a quiet place to sit on their first day of this bizarre walkabout. The overall feeling, however, was this: This will not be an easy journey,but an important one. What better way to define a pilgrimage?
The second leg of the exhibition is Performance & Process at Laguna Gloria. The setting is the historical villa and beautifully kept grounds that so many of us who live in Austin have visited frequently. You will be surprised by how you encounter this “old friend” anew with these works.
Entering the late vacation home (built in 1916) of Clara Driscoll (1881–1945) you nearly trip on a photomontage installation lying on the floor, titled Swan Cycle: Chapter One, 2015, compiled by Lakes Were Rivers (lakeswererivers.com), a unique photo collective of 11 Texas-based artists. As if an auction house or historian were cataloguing Ms. Driscoll’s personal photographs for archive, you can see careful consideration of how the images interact with one another. It is a successful way of discussing the act of “display” and references a life led long ago in opulence, industry and performance through the status of her daily life. Driscoll herself was a trailblazer and renaissance woman who broke many molds in her time. These works set out to question and remake her unique history.
Beautifully paired with the framed photographs is a video installation, Swan Cycle: Chapter Two, 2015 (indicating there are many more chapters to come). The formal dining room of the home has been turned into a modern art theater—stark but inviting—and the images projected are slow motion, ethereal pans of thick natural fauna on the Laguna Gloria grounds. The audible layers of resonating bird songs, cicadas and an occasional crunch of undergrowth transport the viewer to become the cameraperson/jungle-explorer. The style of footage is romantic and epic. The images of fog, mist, night and early morning create an eerie sense of a horror film unfolding. In a clearing an ice swan is melting, but the artists don’t tell the whole story, and this allows the imagination of the “why” to take hold. It brought back fond memories of Andy Goldsworthy’s temporary sculptures and the idea that nature (and ultimately our own lives) is supposed to grow, blossom, decay and begin again as a new form.
Contrasting the mystical journey of the Swan Cycle video is Yoko Ono’s, Summer Dream (Let your dream come true on a distant wall), 2012/2015. Simple, stark and playful, the artwork asks the visitor to type an anonymous note describing their dream on an iPad, which is transmitted to an LED sign beyond the French door frame view. Sometimes literal, I dreamed my cat licked my skin off, or philosophical, we are all still dreaming. Most of the phrases are reflective, hopeful statements: I will remember happy days and not sad ones. I want my life to mean something. Ono’s work has been an anchor in contemporary experimentation and social participation since the 1960s. For better or worse, we associate her with peace and hope. That may affect our decision to type in our dreams of better days ahead. The bold and hopefully truthful statements help balance the saccharine: I dream of spider webs, ice cream and bare breasts.
The final leg of the journey is Technology & Information, on view at the Visual Arts Center (VAC) on The University of Texas campus. These works are predominantly video and mixed media installations by Paul Sharits, Dream Displacement, 1976; Charles Atlas, Institute for Turbulence Research (from Tornado Warning), 2008; Phil Collins, This Unfortunate Thing Between Us, 2011; and Trisha Baga, 4pm on a Sunday, 2015.
Works like Paul Sharits’s multiprojection sensory color field film paved the way for many future mixed-media artists. As he deconstructs the physical film frame, he questions the identity of the moving image with blocks of red, white and green color. Almost as if Sharits were animating an Ellsworth Kelly or Rothko painting, this work puts the viewer in a visual trance, and the sounds of the projectors, audio crackles and breaking glass add to the unbalancing effect. This work is also a historical statement now that “film” is predominantly shot in a digital format and 35mm or 16mm film is rarely used for commercial purposes.
Paired with this is the all-encompassing Charles Atlas video installation that creates a sense of panic and inescapable devastation.
“Tornado Warning consists of hallucinatory video projects inspired by the artist’s childhood experiences of storm alerts in St. Louis, Missouri. There is a nostalgically technophile element.”
–Colin Perry, published in frieze magazine, November 26, 2008
Although extremely different in context, medium and approach, all these artists are engaged in a similar “magical realism,” whether it be in more of a dreamscape or an attempt at writing one’s own history, the cliché stands firm: The journey is more important than the destination.
Gabriel García Márquez wrote a collection of 12 short stories of the same name, Strange Pilgrims, that serves as the metaphysical foundation of the exhibition. These stories took him over 18 years to finish, starting in the 1970s.
“True memories seemed like phantoms, while false memories were so convincing that they replaced reality. This meant I could not detect the dividing line between disillusionment and nostalgia. It was the definitive solution. At last, I had found what I needed most to complete the book, what only the passing of the years could give: a perspective in time.” –Gabriel García Márquez, Strange Pilgrims
The curator and writers of this exhibition have emphatically encompassed these works with this weighted quote. These artists were chosen because they question—Perspectives in Time—from every nuance and angle imagined. While reading García Márquez’s stories you can journey deeper into the wonderland rabbit-hole of your own existence while thinking about how each artist wrestles with his or her own perspective of time. Ultimately, you begin to question everything.
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” –Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad/Roughing It
Like these artists, García Márquez is attempting to reach a level of truth by experiencing the spectrum of life: lust, longing, fantasy, loss, insecurity, comfort, seeking resolution and with some hope and luck—happiness. However, the mysticism is parlayed with the realism, an unraveling of the psyche. His individual short stories carry a common darker thread, many of which are victims of their own destructive choices.
While most of his stories touch on exile, dislocation and the strangeness of life as a foreigner, García Márquez wrote of the journey as the process of experience and the memory and nostalgia as the emotional currency that carries beyond time and space. This exhibition, although dense, is one that you can come back to, contemplate and revisit in a way that most curatorial shows do not welcome in such an engaging way.
This curatorial juggernaut comes at a time when we are questioning what the new technical world is. Will we really have computer chips behind our ears? Thankfully we are not quite there yet. But the lines of individuality, experience and time are being blurred at a dizzying pace with the help of personal devices and the new “wearable” technologies.
Magical realism is a state of both fantasy and reality. The comparison of detailed descriptions of everyday mundane events is countered by the attempt to understand mystical events. The foundation of this idea is that our subconscious functions between the supernatural and natural easily and constantly. We assume we are the only animals on the planet who exist in both states simultaneously, although ecological inquiry may prove that incorrect someday.
Strange Pilgrims is an investigation into these connected yet distinct realms of existence. It accepts the natural world and our curiosity to harness and experiment with the elements given to us, which, in turn, are the basic building blocks of our ever-changing technologies.
Why is it that just the idea of exotic travel gives rise to skin bumps and deep breaths? Perhaps instinctually we are creatures of constant evolution, which is a testament and credit to our own survival. When we travel we can’t help but expand our understanding of humanity and our role in it; seeking, being hungry for a new perspective and being changed (sometimes forever) in a world that is not your own can be exhilarating and frightening.
When we stretch beyond our tiny life-bubbles and immerse ourselves in unknown cultures and environments, we receive the gift of empathy and perspective. You have to smell, taste and touch these new things to truly have them change you, if change is what you seek.
That is the heart of the pilgrim. True travel is to be changed for the better, to be forgiven, or to forget while traversing a journey uncharted and unknown. Sometimes the journey is dark and full of rough terrain; other times it is blindingly bright and restful. How will these experiences, in the moment or long after memories, change me? How will they affect my future choices? How will I interact with others afterwards? How will I raise my children or live in relationships, es post facto?
Art, in its varied forms, is a veil through which we can view the world full of beauty and vice, joy and darkness. Art is especially needed in instances of injustice, chaos and catastrophe so we can approach the difficult with a tempered calm and reflection. The idea of the exploration and fantasy is only the beginning. Sometimes we have to blindly trust in strangers to know ourselves.Strange Pilgrims gives us the space and contemplation to inspire this and more.
Strange Pilgrims is on exhibit at The Contemporary Austin—Downtown, The Contemporary Austin- Laguna Gloria and The Visual Arts Center at UT Austin through January 24, 2016. More information can be found at www.thecontemporaryaustin.org