Andree Singer Thompson

Looking 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.

Valerie 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 viewer’s presence and participation are more important than ever.

The 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.

The Entire area where the ramp is situated – floor, railings, walls and ceiling—has 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.

To 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.

A shimmer of reflections across the placard’s 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 soul’s last journey across the water of the river Styx to the underworld.

Ahead, 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 death’s 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 Turrell’s 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.

Almost 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.

I 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.

Retracing 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.

When 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.

That 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 it’s 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 fire tongs.

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