The metamorphic potential of art to transform space can render it a sublime physical and perceptive experience. Such altered worlds can be found in the melancholic terrains of Kelly Richardson, whose projected video installations channel exterior and interior landscapes into a new experiential space. The Canadian-born, Newcastle, England based Richardson achieves this by merging photographs and documentary footage with virtual and imagined elements generated by avant-garde computer technologies. Uninhabited by people, these landscapes feature elements of uncanny otherworldliness altered through digital animation: a green, misty deer in the forest in Twilight Avenger, 2008, for example, or holographic-style trees of light shooting through a moon-like surface in Erudition, 2010. The resulting experience for the viewer lies somewhere between tranquility and uncertainty, a tension, as the artist has stated, that reflects “anxieties about our current trajectory. There is a calmness and a beauty but with a certain level of unease about our future.” On one level, the stillness of these landscapes coupled with indistinguishable, gentle noises, the illusion of soft breezes, blowing branches, and lapping water, tends towards the meditative and ethereal. At the same time, a palpable tension evokes a distant sense of foreboding, the subconscious suggestion of some unimaginable unknown that might be lurking nearby. Richardson might agree with the pioneering video artist Bill Viola, when he stated, “I do not distinguish between inner and outer landscapes.” Such strange and hybrid worlds are at the heart of Richardson’s practice.
For Richardson’s Artpace residency, the artist created an immersive work, Leviathan, a high-definition, triple-channel video installation based on the cypress forest in Caddo Lake in the town of Uncertain, Texas. Located on the Northeast border of the state, Uncertain has a population of 150 people, and bills itself as “Texas’s best kept secret.” Additionally, this swamp – Texas’s only naturally-formed lake – has perhaps the unwanted fact of being the world’s first site for over-water oil exploration. Not surprisingly, most Texans with whom the artist spoke with weren’t aware of the existence of this site or town. Setting off like a modern-day explorer, Richardson took to the waters in a boat with still and moving cameras, over the course of four days, to glean footage that she edited and composited into the final product. Through digital animation, Richardson birthed a series of twisting, snake-like tendrils of yellowish electric light, alluding to a creature or alien energy, perhaps dangerous, a mythical “Leviathan” coursing beneath the surface of the swamp’s waters. This and the gently-blowing branches of the Cypress trees comprise the only action in the video projection, a restrained sensibility that permeates the fantastical worlds of Richardson’s work. Reflecting off the high-gloss floor of Artpace’s gallery, the work blends seamlessly with its architectural environment, leaving the impression of a psychological swampland as remembered from pre-historic times.
In its innovative combination of divergent media and cutting-edge technologies with traditional subject matter, Richardson’s hybrid practice occupies a decidedly post-modern position. Its lineage can be traced to a turning point in the 1960s and 70s, when artists such as Dara Birnbaum, Bruce Conner, Hollis Frampton, Dan Graham, Gary Hill, Joan Jonas, Tony Oursler, Nam Jun Paik, Paul Sharits, Bill Viola, and others began critiquing and dissolving the normative rules around the moving image and thus art in general, finding ways to allow both the still photographic, film, and video image to seep into other mediums. While present in all aspects of increasingly globalized art practices, this trend was perhaps most obvious and radical in the intersection of film and video with other media. Becoming dissatisfied with the confines and limitations of the theater space – a sitting, immobile audience, darkened space, comfortable chairs, single image on a large screen – the moving image crept onto the floors, ceiling, and walls of the gallery space and then into public space. As curator and scholar Chrissie Iles wrote, the static cinematic model that Roland Barthes articulated in which there is “no circulation, no movement, and no exchange … is broken apart by the folding of the dark space of cinema into the white cube of the gallery”; now “the darkened gallery’s space invites participation, movement, the sharing of multiple viewpoints, the dismantling of the single frontal screen, and an analytical, distanced form of viewing.” With three, large-scale, angled screens and simultaneous projections, Leviathan encapsulates this expanded field of cinema, photography, and installation.
In addition to the art historical richness within her work, Richardson also has allegiance to Pop culture, making no secret of the fact that she is influenced by horror and science-fiction films. Historically, both genres have achieved the most popular mass appeal in response to societal angst, as their thematic foundations lie in divining the most unimaginably horrific iterations of humankind’s greatest contemporary fears. Cold war anxiety was reflected in the proliferation of mutant-madness B-movies in the 1950s, The Incredible Shrinking Woman and The Fly being two memorable examples; more recently, the resurgence of seductive Pop vampire flicks such as the Twilight saga and the HBO series True Blood reflect society’s increasingly unrealistic obsession with youth. Biblical-scaled disasters have always been the subject of horror and science-fiction, but with today’s enhanced means of global communication, an inconceivably expanding rate of human population, and tools of greater technological destruction, the impact of such catastrophes becomes exponentially great. While Richardson’s work is by no means didactic, the artist has spoken about both the site of Caddo Lake and resulting work’s sinister undercurrents, implying meaning in reference to the global presence of large-scale environmental blight. As the artist has written, here two realities merge: “the hugely stressed physical landscape which facilitates life and is currently charted for extreme environmental breakdown, [and] the digital landscape we increasingly inhabit which has really altered what it means to be a human being and which offers a new kind of sublime.”
Last year’s 2010 remake of George Romero’s 1973 film The Crazies, a thriller based on the catastrophic effects of biological weapons accidentally released on a small town, features a memorable scene relevant to Richardson’s Leviathan: as the protagonist sits in a boat searching for the source of the toxic leak that polluted the town’s waters (and made its inhabitants go murderously crazy), the camera pans to birds-eye view, revealing a massive, dinosaur-scaled black stealth plane submerged beneath the water. The queasy feeling of revelation, the darkness hiding in plain sight, presages the impending collapse of social order and ensuing chaos. With its meditative calmness, absent narrative yet perpetually tinged with the immanent unknown, Richardson’s work walks the line between the real and the imaginary, the seen and the invisible, the tangible and the ineffable. Leviathan allows the viewer to experience both seductive awe and subtle anxiety while wondering what lies beneath its haunting, beautiful, pulsating waters.
ARTPACE SAN ANTONIO
by HEATHER PESSANTI