On ViewMicroscope Gallery
May 17 – July 1, 2019
In Verily! the Blackest Sea, the Falling Sky (2017), a two-channel video work, Peggy Ahwesh takes us on a journey from the ocean’s primordial depths, filled with squids and Leviathans, into the reaches of outer space. One moment, a surfer is slapped unconscious by the mighty thrust of a whale’s giant tail, and we are transported near stars and rotating planets the next. Images such as the whale are repeated—we see the creature from a bird’s-eye view, lying on a beach, dead, probably killed by ingesting plastics. This is a contemporary journey of the Pequod, with capsized refuge boats, floating corpses, and maritime catastrophes. A black wall plaque introduces and amplifies the theme:
Still interestingly surged the black sea,
As if its vast tides were conscience.
The great mundane soul in agony
And remorse for the long sin and
Suffering it bred.
Ahwesh’s videos are an urgent “earth to space” update of the Ray and Charles Eames’ film Powers of Ten (1977), which zoomed from a Central Park picnic blanket into the stratosphere and back again in multiples of ten. Ahwesh’s version ups the ante by covering a lot more archetypal, ontological, and cosmogonic territory. Her videos resonate deeply as profound philosophical meditations on planetary survival, and our place in the cosmos.
The angled rear-screen projections of Verily! read as separate pieces rather than a diptych, yet are both created from found footage produced by Taiwanese companies to illustrate news stories. In the films, blank white mannequins resembling crash dummies stand in for people, and they ominously turn red when dead. They function as blank screens, much in the way shadow figures do, allowing us to project unconscious content onto them; the viewer completes each mannequin, using their own unconscious material. Most are anonymous, with the exception of a few iconic images, like that of Alan Kurdi, the Syrian refugee child washed up on the beach.
Many artists, including Joseph Cornell and Bruce Conner, have used found footage. Ahwesh’s found footage, though, is stylized and computer generated, and its distanced anonymity allows us to move into futuristic psychological spaces. The Falling Sky (the second part of Verily!) is a cautionary tale. In it, the mannequins are programmed, robotic, and covered with digital hardware and censors. This is a dystopian, technological world, with no human emotion or relatedness; even gravestones contain barcodes that can be scanned to describe those buried below. The anxiety one feels watching it is palpable, because with advancing robotics we are already seeing hints of this world to come.
Kansas Atlas (2019), a four-channel video installation, takes us to the geographical center of America, using shot footage from the artist’s trip to the heartland. For the ancient Greeks, the Omphalos, or center of the universe, was an earth navel or place of origin. Here the exact center is marked by a white clapboard chapel the size of a closet. A poetic text written and recorded by Marianne Shaneen (played in earphones) expands on this notion of a mythic cosmology with references to Aboriginal songlines, and Roman augers cutting sacred space from the skies. Ahwesh takes this cosmogony into the realm of Americana with shots of a concrete Garden of Eden, made in 1907 by Civil War veteran Samuel Perry Dinsmoor, in nearby Lucas. Dinsmoor was pro-Union and anti-big business, a far cry from the Kansas portrayed in Thomas Frank’s What's the Matter with Kansas? (2004). Dinsmoor’s concrete Adam and Eve, with their Masonic aprons and Protestant appeal, remind us of the strange and complex story of creation that bridges the opposites and is part of the American story.
Two iPads under glass domes on pedestals, facing Kansas Atlas, give us a feeling of the conflicting elements in this heartland. Each shows a video of two opposite houses in a residential Topeka neighborhood. One is the headquarters of the Westboro Baptist Church, picketed with anti-LGBTQ signs. In juxtaposition is the “Equality House,” which was built later as a direct response, with its gay rainbow-colored siding and messages of peace and acceptance.
Border Control (2019) is a flat, four-screen floor piece that forms a kaleidoscopic mandala. Ahwesh shot the footage from the Mexican side of the San Diego-Tijuana border, and the fence there forms the bars of the kaleidoscope. Onsite, a San Diego art association, formerly hosted many artist projects on this border, which is the busiest crossing in the world. Ahwesh’s video feels like part of this artistic history, and includes shots of Trump’s wall prototypes. The action is interrupted when a man unexpectedly appears, vaulting over the current fence and disappearing into the United States. The kaleidoscopic multiplicity of her border wall makes it a statement on the many borders we see being breached worldwide.
The last piece in the exhibition, Re: The Operation (2019), is a video installation of four stacked monitors. In our world of simulated conflicting narratives, we see the government-sanctioned official US version of Bin Laden’s death in his compound contrasted against the version revealed by investigative reporters like Seymore Hersh. Both stories have been reconstructed by the artist from 3D animation sequences culled from news sources online, and play on a pair of monitors at a 90-degree angle. In a world where the army prepares such assaults using animated mockups, this conflicting version of reality seems ever more complex.
Peggy Ahwesh, an artist of Syrian descent, feels rooted in a bigger concept of the philosophical and mythic origins of our place in the cosmos. When much animated American video art stays on the level of comic book kitsch, Ahwesh is in a class by herself. Her videos travel to compass points horizontally and vertically, intersecting points that have their interior correspondences in the unconscious and world of mythology. Ahwesh comes across like an old soul giving mythic explorations a much needed update. This is not only a beautiful installation, but perhaps one of the most important exhibitions of video art this critic has seen.