Under the Light: Passages and Installation by Otani, Stanek, and
Thompson at Intersection for the Arts, May 11-June 6 and October
1-26; by M.F. Porges; Shift,
Volume 2, Number 4, Page 42 and 43.
Otani, Elizabeth Staneck and Andree Thompson have been collaborators
on occasional site-specific projects since they met during graduate
school at San Francisco State nearly ten years ago. Brought together
by a mutual fascination with the properties and possibilities
of raw clay, they have often experimented with its many states
in their pieces, primarily in outdoor settings. Many of these
works clearly respond to the unique history or geographical idiosyncrasies
of particular place, rather than regarding it arbitrarily as neutral
ground (like some so called site-specific art). Elements of these
pieces change strikingly over time, and the audience, as observers
of this transformative process, become part of the planned environment
of the work. The installation these three have created at Intersection
for the Arts is a departure from past work in that it is indoors
and no clay is involved. However, the issues of time and change
are intelligently and movingly addressed, and the viewers
presence and participation are more important than ever.
building Intersection occupies was a mortuary in its former life.
Some of its features date back to that use, including a ramp between
the first and second stories which was built to accommodate the
movement of caskets from the embalming room upstairs to the viewing
room below. With a remarkable subtlety and economy of means, the
artists have transformed this ramp into a metaphorical journey
through death, mediating on the nature of transcendence.
Entire area where the ramp is situated floor, railings,
walls and ceilinghas been painted with a soft, creamy white
enamel. The light from two high windows and a skylight, amplified
and redirected by every surface into a warming ambient glow, fills
the upper parts of the sloping structure. Like switchbacks on
a hillside path, the ramp winds back and forth, open all the way
up to the high ceiling.
help us understand the nature of significance of this atmosphere
of light, the artists have installed an enlarged dictionary page
showing the many definitions of the word shade near the top of
the ramp. As you come closer to read down the long column of many
meanings, a spotlight placed discreetly behind you throws your
shadow (shade) over the text. The words, printed on transparent
plastic, cast their own faint images on the wall.
shimmer of reflections across the placards surface is echoed
in a gleaming strip of pink-tinted Lucite fastened to the opposite
wall. The glowing edge of this optically magical material serves
as a kind of pause punctuation in the progress of the piece, like
musical notation. A panel of the same warmly tinted plastic has
been placed across the lower part of one of the windows, and it
casts a shifting bar of rose-colored light on the ramp below.
Passing through it, you come to a trio of pedestals tucked into
an alcove on the next landing. Each supports a transparent box
partly filled with water. Three similar vessels suspended above
them release the fluid silently, drop by slow drop. Water, a universal
symbol of life, is being used here both to describe time and to
suggest the exchange of fluids that takes place in the embalming
process. Another more classical reference is made, as well, to
the souls last journey across the water of the river Styx
to the underworld.
at the third turn, where the ramp doubles back under itself and
becomes enclosed, the artists have used the existing architecture
to literalize the metaphor of deaths sudden darkness. Another
line of pink Lucite directs your attention to a message printed
upside down on the floor of the landing. The grave is a
covered bridge, leading from light to light, through a brief darkness.
Looking up from reading these words, you are staring down a tunnel
of deep shadow. As with one of James Turrells subtle manipulations
of light and space, it takes time to adjust to the sudden gloom,
and to see the almost phosphorescent blue-purple glow at the far
end. Gradually, it resolves into vertical bars of reflected light
from a blue ground-level window on a group of columns. As you
pass them and turn the final corner, you enter a cryptic space
of complete darkness.
complete darkness. A small flickering well of light draws you
cautiously forward. Approaching it, you look down onto the world
outside: a recumbent TV monitor shows a busy street corner, cars
and trucks passing, the muffled sound of their engines rising
up in waves like the sound of the city breathing. The scene you
are watching, though, is upside down.
was puzzled by this reversal, and by the strange floppy tube of
transparent plastic standing on the screen, until I stepped away
from it. Standing back, I saw the rippled image of the street
reflected in the plastic, right-side up, cars melting in streaks
of light across its curved surface.
my steps out of the shadow, I thought about heliotropism: how
plants grow unerringly to wards their source of light. What Otani,
Stanek and Thompson are saying here is that death is the light
towards which we all grow, implying a kind of hopeful transcendence.
At the same time, a curious ambiguity punctuates the piece, like
those dashes of pretty pink. What is that light they show us on
the other side of the dark, after all, but a slippery mirror,
the image of an image? Throughout the installation strips and
slabs of plastic deflect our observation, showing us only our
distorted reflection. Our shadow-shades are as much a part of
this journey as we are, reminding us of the somewhat illusory
nature of our physical existence.
I was a child, it seemed as thought the movie was running backwards;
death receded into the distance, instead of coming closer. Protected
by booster shots and vaccines on sugar cubes from diseases that
had almost killed my mother and my brother, it seemed as though
I might live forever.
time is gone, though, for all of us. No drug or prayer can guard
me or you from harm. Unfortunately, a lot of art responds to this
frightening and bewildering situation by hiding in ridiculous
sophistry or by vacuously reproducing the past, hoping perhaps
that the present will just go away. By having the courage to look
at death calmly, these three women offer us a moment of transcendent
realism that may help us to reconcile a little of the anger and
the fear. Any real transcendence is by nature ineffable, though,
so its not surprising that they have created an experience
beyond language. Describing it, I feel like an English teacher
trying to explain a poem
like trying to pen a flower with