PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 24.3 (2002) 87-91
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Amy Jenkins's Dream Videos
Amy Jenkins, Shelter for Daydreaming, Julia Friedman Gallery, Chicago, October 19-December 1, 2001.
Some years ago I read of a wealthy man who had had a television installed directly over his bed, facing downward on a motorized platform, so that he could alter its distance from him by remote control. The self-indulgent decadence of this arrangement suggests a desire to create a cocoon-like space perfectly wedded to one's momentary desires, in which, presumably aided by channel flipping through commercial TV, not the slightest effort, either physical or intellectual, need be expended.
In Without, one of the two video installations Amy Jenkins exhibited at Julia Friedman Gallery in Chicago, two mats in a darkened enclosure encourage viewers to lie on the floor, facing a video image projected on the ceiling. The image, which shows clouds apparently reflected on water with tiny human figures floating in the foreground, initially seems restful and soothing, and the apparent two-viewer limitation, with its suggestion of a couple, is seductively intimate. But while Jenkins hopes her piece will be "mesmerizing," it also challenges the viewer's tendency to drift into blank complacency, for the imagery is fraught with ambiguity and undermined by a feeling of precariousness.
The viewer is first faced with figuring out what the image actually shows. The notion that it's reflected clouds is contradicted by several cues: the figures seem to be floating slowly and weightlessly, and the tiny drops that appear on the surface are convex rather than concave. In fact, the image was taken underwater, looking up through the surface of a pond at the sky. The sound track, which consists of mostly muffled voices that are sometimes recognizable, contributes as well: a drone of garbled words is interrupted by moments of recognizable phrases, the most prominent being the query, "Are you all right?"—which the installation seems to direct at the supine and immersed viewer, even though the speaker was engaged in a conversation. The voices were in fact culled by Jenkins from tapes that her grandfather made in the 1960s of family members talking, but they don't seem to function autobiographically [End Page 87] [Begin Page 89] here; rather, they add the ambience of chit-chat in a crowded room. The particular kind of muffling Jenkins uses reminded me of the childhood experience of trying to listen through a wall to adults talking: one catches phrases, but the whole is incomprehensible.
What makes Without so compelling is the way it weds the perceptual and the psychological. Like much modernist art, the piece puts the status of its perceived elements into question and is partly about the viewer's process of trying to unpack its ambiguities of image and sound. Lying down while looking up, one finds that the installation mirrors the image itself: both place one in a vulnerable position, with the body exposed to the "elements" (water, sky, figures, the whole video image) above, which helps foreground self-awareness of the viewing process.
At the same time, the weightless effect of the figures floating through water combines with the way surface waves cause the cloud reflections to gently waver, so that the sky image is constantly undulating and warping. The result is a sense of drifting suspension that is, like the piece as a whole, both soothing and, because of instabilities of the space and image, a bit frightening. The human figure is cut adrift in a weightless underwater world, sometimes falling towards us, as if from the clouds, and sometimes moving away, as if rising towards the heavens. Mostly shadowed due to the backlighting, the figures have a mysterious iconic power. Rising and falling, they suggest cycles of death and rebirth. But these figures are also miniatures, toys, making the clouds the most substantive part of the real world that we can see, but they in turn are spectral apparitions whose shape changes as constantly as...