On ViewSmack Mellon
March 7 – September 20, 2020
“I never get tired of the view from this room … I’m staying in this place to get some work done, to get away from the city.” Summer McCorkle’s video installation, des abends (2020), begins with the promise of a good story told on a frosty day. Wintry images of rural New Hampshire and Finland flicker on two video screens in the corner of a dark room at Smack Mellon as a woman’s quiet voice details the process of a writer acclimating to a new place, the quality of northern sunlight, and the brevity of winter days. McCorkle’s camera moves are minimal. She allows her images to linger on screen. Things feel informal and sincere, allowing the viewer to settle in and listen.
Two minutes into the piece, the screen darkens. A man’s voice takes over the narration, reading a passage from Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. McCorkle’s camera slowly pans along shadowy rows of tree trunks while Mary Shelley’s anti-hero grapples with the intensity of consciousness: “Feeling pain invade me on all sides, I sat down and wept.” In contrast to the woman who began the video, whose mindful observations carry a sense of freedom and enjoyment, this man despairs in an unwelcoming world of sensations he does not understand. As the piece proceeds, the narratives alternate and intersect. The woman meets someone, starts a family, loses a child. She begins to forget things: events, places, words. Meanwhile, the excerpts from Shelley continue, as Frankenstein’s awareness of life sharpens and he literally struggles to find his voice and a language with which to make sense of all he encounters.
McCorkle taps into the delicious pleasure of hearing a story read—something not often experienced past childhood—but in both her written narration and the passages she plucks from Mary Shelley, she provides only the slightest trail of crumbs for the viewer to follow, opting for a poetic but incomplete assemblage of story fragments. Created in response to her father’s struggle with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, the piece gently deconstructs the wholeness of narrative, allowing things to peter out and fall apart against slow montages of northern forests, powdered roads, and the night sky. The consistency of her images provides a sense of wholeness, uniting the separate storylines within the same location: the woods, the dark, unending maze of the subconscious where so many fairy tales take place. Eventually, the strands of language knit together, as both voices stumble upon a shared word: “father.”
The few moments when McCorkle breaks away from her primal location occur when the woman describes memories. Black and white 16mm footage of a bedroom recall her childhood home. A shot of the Williamsburgh Savings Bank, filmed in a blizzard from the window of a subway car, wipes to black as Joan Didion is evoked in the line, “I didn’t miss New York; I said good-bye to all that.” A soundtrack of a pianist playing Robert Schumann’s Fantasiestücke Op. 12 no. 1. Des Abends (1837) for the first time runs throughout the piece. Towards the end of the video, McCorkle cuts to the pianist sitting at a piano alongside a window overlooking a winter sunset, the music mirroring a loneliness that lies at the heart of both her stories.
Post-lockdown, the video plays like a COVID-19 diary, a chat with a friend who left town and the restrictions of social distancing behind for a more satisfying version of solitude. Lines of narration bear an uncanny resemblance to observations made after months of living remotely: “My internal clock is messed up; I’m losing my internal compass; What I know is fading. My universe now is only the present, being in the present, the sensation of the present.” Elton E. Jones, a Black actor, reads the passages from Frankenstein, his resonant voice lending specificity to the text’s meditation on the experience of an outsider forever denied a sense of safety or the warmth of inclusion. Watching it again online (it is available as a single-channel video on the gallery’s website), I found it hard to look at McCorkle’s clips of snow falling against the redness of an evening sky and not think of the fires blazing in Oregon, Washington, and California.
The piece seems to wrap itself around everything that has transpired since its installation in early March. But such is the function of a good narrative. We return to works like McCorkle’s because they stay with us, change with us, and allow us, amid the tumultuous gyre of the present day, to glimpse not only the artist’s intention, but our own reflection. More than six months into wearing a mask and keeping my distance in a country that has been torn apart by plague, murder, and devastation, I am most haunted by a line spoken at the end of the piece: “The very essence of who I am in this world is gone, and it’s replaced by nothing, emptiness, a shell.”