On ViewCharlie James
March 17 – April 21, 2018
In Star Death and The Pain Body, Rachel Mason tunes both visual and aural experience to create a sacral space where we perceive, for a moment, the unknown outside and within us. Her video installation is a tiny chapel with a bench just large enough to seat three people. The bench is placed before a trio of projection screens in a U-shape, like three walls of a box, so that the images envelop the viewer, who is seated roughly where the fourth wall would be. Surprisingly, the bottom edge of the projection is not crisp, as is the norm for video, but instead dissipates into uneven shadow, inducing a sense of incompletion. This unusual formal characteristic aligns with the work’s sonic qualities, in which some words and phrases are clearly understood while others are just beyond intelligibility. Brief strings of language stand out as the four-minute video loops continuously: “tug of war,” “explodes,” “what wins is the inner force,” “outer force wins,” “stretch and squeeze in a chaotic manner until torn completely apart.” The speakers are theoretical physicist Kip Thorne, astrophysicist Rana Adhikari, and astronomer Andrea Ghez, each describing the life of a star from birth to eventual death as either supernova or black hole. Mason can be heard singing throughout the soundtrack, at times sounding like a muezzin calling the faithful to prayer. The volume is set low enough that I strained to know precisely what I heard, only to find full comprehension impossible.
Moving, almost swimming through this sound is the dancer Oguri, who flows in slow motion as he abstractly enacts each phase of a star’s life. He is wrapped in red and yellow fabric streaming from his body in long strands, suggesting solar flares as his body twists at their center. Oguri appears alone in a sea of darkness, figure and fabric occupying all three screens, pulsing and at times erupting. He conveys a star as a suffering object, gas and fire passing through painful growth and contraction, a god beyond our comprehension. In one passage his figure cannot be discerned at all, the fabric alone visible in a spherical shape like a smoldering ember turning in space. Without the accompanying sound, the video would be so ethereal as to slip through consciousness, but Mason sculpts music and language as material substance, giving the video form and weight.
The work’s title, Star Death and The Pain Body, points outward to the cosmos but also inward to private experience. Being a father of a two-year-old and a five-year-old, the phrase “stretch and squeeze in a chaotic manner until torn completely apart” is an apt description of my emotional life nearly every day of the week, and though I laugh about it, I do not write this in jest. Using Oguri to represent a celestial body, Mason directly links the stellar to the mortal. The video’s dissipating bottom edge and its frequently indistinct sound manifest the limits of our capacity to penetrate the mysteries of our own lives, and for most of us, the opacity of physics itself. In black holes, the laws we understand no longer hold true, yet they contain secrets to the universe’s creation. The installation observes these conditions squarely but without comment.
This exhibition is a fragment of a much larger project currently occupying Mason, a work she has titled The Moving Mountain, which will eventually entail a live performance and may encompass other formal realizations as well. Mason works in many media, including sculpture, music, video, and performance and tends to engage her subject matter through numerous means. For example, she previously presented various elements of a work called The Lives of Hamilton Fish before ultimately developing it into a feature length film. That project also examined a pairing—almost a twinning—tracing the stories of two men named Hamilton Fish who died just one day apart: the first a serial killer and the second a politician whose father had been Secretary of State under Ulysses S. Grant. The two men were as distant from one another as we are from other galaxies, yet were linked by their names and the coincidental timing of their deaths. Mason proffers the stars as our own twins; each of us experiences the tug of war between inner and outer forces, arriving at very different endpoints depending on which force triumphs.
Watching the video looping over time, I found myself considering how our sun will eventually consume us, how Saturn consumed his sons. The intelligence in this work lies in Mason’s ability to address the scale of the universe without becoming unmoored. Anchoring heavenly bodies to our suffering selves produces meaning, much like the naming of constellations and the elaboration of narratives surrounding them.