Visual Art

Fog and Screaming

Art That Changes as It Goes

Fog and Screaming

Litany, Erin Elyse Burns

A Project Space is a shadowy room flickering with videos inside an old industrial building down by the trains and orange cranes of Seattle's port. The building's facade is painted orange in an echo. What's inside relates to what's outside, the art to the place. Inside the dark room, three videos play at once, looping. They involve fog, the evergreen landscape of this city, and screaming.

A female face, hair pulled away and head shrouded in a severe black hood, screams until the face is red and hot. The only sound is a monklike chanting that plays over everything; paired with her silent scream, it's calming and disquieting at the same time. Look left or right, and there's another video on another wall. The usual term for this is "immersive" video. You're surrounded and enveloped in this new place made by the crossing of the images.

Each short film is tightly composed, capturing real and plain places and things but in a highly cinematic way. For instance, the shrouded figure reappears full-frame crossing a foggy footbridge. While walking away, she takes on the cast of fantasy—she looks insidious, like a treacherous monk rushing through a good queen's castle at midnight with murder on his mind. In still another video, a woman stands in a dark, lush forest where the sun is obscured. She waits until another woman arrives, whispers a secret in the woman's ear, then leaves. Several other videos have no figures at all, just landscapes and weather systems. Steam rises (from an unseen boiling pot) to cling to an apartment window, factory smoke (from an unseen industrial plant) blurps into an already cloudy sky. The camera sees only isolated smoke and fog.

This art installation is by Seattle's Erin Elyse Burns, who for the last few weeks has continued to shoot and add footage, and to toy with the way the videos might go in and out of a certain choreographed synchronization. Changing the art as you go is part of the philosophy at A Project Space, where the exhibition is not just a show but a monthlong residency. (Fellow artist Sally Schuh invented and runs A Project Space. The room itself is part of her own studio—to cordon it off, she made a scrim out of pieces of paper zip-tied together at the corners, a fractured "wall" that lends a delicate and porous atmosphere.)

On two nights, Burns's installation, called Litany, will change again, when the soundtrack playing on the speakers will be joined by a live performance of the same score. It's John Cage's late composition Litany for the Whale, which calls for two voices to sing and randomly remix each of the phonetic sounds in the word "whale"—those sounds are what you're hearing with the fog, the screaming, the forest. The singer is Jeremiah Cawley, who'll also perform, layering his recorded and live selves. Cawley made the recording in a 15th-century cathedral in London, where he was only allowed to sing in the dark hours between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. It sounds like this nocturnal detail somehow made it into the recording.

Burns says John Cage specified that whoever sings Litany for the Whale should stand with his back to the audience. It obscures the source of the sound—just as the source of Burns's fog and steam is unseen and, in a similar but opposing effect, her scream is stoppered. She is the female figure in her videos, going through repetitive motions that nevertheless carry emotional weight. Litany can't help but bring to mind Bas Jan Ader's classic short video from 1971, I'm Too Sad to Tell You, in which the artist sits crying in front of a camera. His crying seems earnest and almost painful to watch, but it is also, explicitly, inexplicable. There is no specific tragedy or trouble to discover, yet it's there. Burns is unsurprisingly an admirer of Jan Ader and a term coined about his short and mysterious career: "conceptual romanticism," joining the restrained, litany-like repetition of Vietnam War–era conceptual art with sensuousness, longing, and pathos.

Litany could have been included in a group exhibition across town called Green Gothic at Hedreen Gallery. It was inspired by an essay of the same name—an essay that has become a touchstone for Seattle art since it was published in La Norda Specialo in 2009, written by the painter Matthew Offenbacher. He linked the beautiful and remedial decay of Gas Works Park with Gretchen Bennett's streaky (rain-on-windshield) sketchings of Kurt Cobain YouTube stills and the forest-embedded monsters of Twilight.

Artist Amanda Manitach organized Green Gothic the show, featuring new works by six other artists, Bennett included. This time, Bennett's drawn stills are from the TV show The Killing. Rodrigo Valenzuela's hypnotic video captures a real train in a gorgeous forest near Olympia that goes to nowhere. (It has a conductor, and he wears a conductor's hat.) Another video, projected on a wall above an evergreen-painted park bench borrowed from the City of Seattle, depicts Discovery Park; the camera pauses on a concrete picnic table, and the words of a romantic monologue appear onscreen, as if the concrete and the windswept shore were speaking as one. The piece is by Stranger writer Charles Mudede.

Portland artist Lisa Radon's contribution is a spiral-bound book "investigating" the Hedreen Gallery (it could go on forever, but Kinko's has a 500-page limit). She includes: local histories, instructions for how cement is made, HVAC manuals, architectural maps, scientific diagrams of light scatter in Seattle, correspondence with a lab about soil samples taken on-site, writings by Lucretius and Nabokov and late conceptual artist Michael Asher from when he worked in Seattle in 1969. Radon calls the book An Attempt at Exhausting a Place, based on a project conducted in a Paris cafe by the mathematical poet Georges Perec. Years after he took exhaustive notes on everything he saw at the cafe—all ordinary things—he explained why, in a simple but political statement about why we should make art about where we live: "What's needed perhaps is finally to found our own anthropology, one that will speak about us, will look in ourselves for what for so long we've been pillaging from others." recommended

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