Art for an apocalypse

David Hebb’s piece in The Sky is Falling! (photo by Jan Harrison)

With less than two months to go until the day the world allegedly ends, according to the Mayan calendar, Alan Baer could think of no better way to commemorate this momentous celestial event than to throw a sound-and-light show at the Byrdcliffe Kleinert/James Center for the Arts titled “The Sky Is Falling!” Illuminated, animated works of some 35 artists spangle the dimly lit space of the gallery like constellations, with images projected on the floor, ceiling, walls and even on a suspended sculpture of an angelic figure titled Virgo/Libra; the figure, which Baer said represents blind justice, has a pair of speaking lips, recalling the work of Tony Oursler (though not his mood of repressed hysteria).

Some pieces also are accompanied by sound. In Travis LeRoy Southworth’s animation Absent-Minded Monotonous Splendor, for example, a voice from the History Channel intones about the Big Bang while an image of the artist’s face, which has the unflattering honesty of an early Chuck Close portrait, is subsumed by a white film. The film preserves every mole and blemish: dots that are transformed into swirling galaxies. Southworth is adept at incorporating the squeamish into his art, as illustrated by his termite-hill-shaped sculptures crafted of spitballs.

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The ancient Mayas didn’t actually say that the world would end on December 21, 2012; to be precise, their calendar marked the end of a 26,000-year cycle [Baktun], in which the solar system allegedly comes into alignment with the center of the galaxy. The last time this happened, 13,000 years ago, predated written history, so we don’t know the effects. However, having studied rock formations and ice cores and observed Sun cycles, some scientists predict possible astronomical disruptions, including gamma rays, emissions from pulsars and interference from black holes.

“I really wanted to get some reactions to the theme,” said Baer, explaining his inspiration for the show. Baer noted that the ability of ancient civilizations to predict the alignment and pinpoint its timing without the aid of modern astronomical equipment is phenomenal. Artists have a similar type of antennae when it comes to ferreting out meanings beyond what meets the eye, and the entries in “The Sky is Falling!” don’t disappoint.

The only requirement for submissions was that the images had to move and be illuminated. Baer received an enthusiastic response, and the show represents quite a geographic reach, with one artist based in the UK and another in Thailand. The works collectively speculate on the mystery of matter, energy and time as well as the pressing issue of technological obsolescence, sustainability and reflections on Nature herself – which in the end trumps all, including those pesky computers.

At least that’s what Dave Hepp suggests in his stop-motion series of photographs of an old white monitor exposed to the elements, including burial in the snow, over many seasons. The piece has a formal rigor that reminds us that the almighty, hypnotic screen in front of which many of us spend too much time is as vulnerable as any old piece of equipment to the vicissitudes of nature. In a second piece, Hepp explores this theme more dramatically, with a video showing flames devouring a wooden frame wired with lightbulbs – a kind of light machine circa 1930; the actual scorched artifact is also displayed, a welcome visceral touch amid the spectral visions.

Keiko Sono’s 110 Days of Winter depicts a snow-covered rock mass in the Catskills as the ice hardens and melts over a season, contracted within a 40-minute timeframe. The barely perceptible, moment-by-moment shifts are meditative – an association that’s reinforced by the resemblance of the ice formations to the rock mountains depicted in ancient Chinese landscape paintings. Polaris: The Forgotten Guide, by Jeanne Englert, with music by David Arner, suggests the unmovable, pale mystery of the North Star by projecting stop-action, rotating movement around a whitish point on the ceiling. The work “represents the shifting movement of the sky and…the exploration of our search for that central point of focus,” as represented by the star, which has been used by navigators over millennia, noted Englert. The piece suggests an underlying order and steady orientation that are comforting amid the fears of all Hell breaking loose.

In contrast, Diane Teramana addresses the apocalyptic theme with found footage of recent disasters, including the Japanese tsunami, set to a musical soundtrack. Jason Christopher Feltrope and Michael Wyshock examine the mysteries of matter and the chaos that might ensue when we enter the center of alignment. Their piece incorporates multiple projectors and DVD players, fabric, quartz sand, ripcords, nylon webbing and sawdust (the piece was by far the most expensive in the show, with a price tag of $100,000).

Jim Duesing, an artist based in Pittsburgh, displays his seven-hour-long animation, whose endlessly repeating motif consists of a cartoon figure taking a bite out of a ham leg, tossing it aside and doing a little dance before picking up another leg off a conveyor belt. The film portrays the mindlessness of conspicuous consumption with its consequent waste: The hams pile up ever higher. Such stupidity suggests that we have much more to fear from ourselves than any singular astronomical alignment; some simple respect for Nature and a return to the values of thrift and plain common sense, rather than more shock and awe, might be far more effective in saving our own hides in the long run.

Baer noted that a variety of sophisticated machines – most artists brought their own – powered the projections, from Mac Minis to tiny media players to a Pico projector, used to project the lips of Nintzel’s sculpture. Placing this mixed-media array of artworks in relation to each other and adjusting the sound of each for a balanced effect was a challenge, the curator said. One piece, consisting of four portraitlike images, required opening up a wall and building a mini- “tech room” to conceal the four computers projecting the images.

Perhaps the most adventurous piece from a tech standpoint, prophetic of the virtual galleries of the future, was the tornado of cars by Curt Belshe and Lise Prown. Next to the projection of the image on the wall was a code that, when scanned with an iPhone, would appear on the phone’s screen transplanted within the gallery itself, as if the tornado had detached itself from the wall and become an actual force within the space.

Hopefully, December 21 will come and go without too much fanfare. “The Sky Is Falling!” definitely suggests that life on this planet is well-worth preserving, if not something that we should so easily take for granted. Hope, beauty, novelty and imagination are here in abundance, hinting at an interesting – though no doubt transformative – future. It would be a shame not to have one.

“The Sky Is Falling!” is on exhibit at the Byrdcliffe Kleinert/James Center for the Arts, located at 36 Tinker Street, in Woodstock, through December 2. The gallery is open Wednesday through Sunday from noon to 6 p.m. The show features works Curt Belshe and Lise Prown; Gianluca Bianchino; Pam Butler; Jason Christopher and Michael Wyshock; Sarawut Chutiwongpeti; James Duesing, Jessica Hodgins, Bum Lee, Moshe Mahler, Jay Oberski, Sang Il Park and David Tinapple; Jeanne Englert and David Arner; Georgie Grace; Dave Hebb; Jim Holl; Heather Hutchison; Benjamin Keddy; Virginia Lavado and Camilo Rojas; Michelle Levante; Neil Ira Needleman; Ken Nintzel; the Ellen Sinopoli Dance Company, including Ellen Sinopoli, William Harper, Kim Vanyo, Jason Sinopoli, Calvin Grimm and Fine Line Multimedia; Keiko Sono; Travis LeRoy Southworth; Paul G. Stewart; and Diane Teramana.

There are 3 comments

  1. Sarah

    It is amazing that it is still even referred to as ‘the end of the world’ or ‘mayan apocalypse’, when it really has nothing to do with that, it is just a great story spread by the foreign media. Here is a link to a
    2012 prophesy explanation

    It’s written by a Guatemalan expert on Mayan cosmovision, and gives a brief but very interesting explanation of what the prophesy really means.
    http://www.spanishxela.com/2012-prophesy.html (in case the other one doesn’t work, apologies for digital stupidity!)

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