Real but Barely So
Art That Rains and Art That Texts You by Susie J. Lee
The old woman sleeps. Light falls on her breathing body. Darkness surrounds the light. This is a video portrait by Susie J. Lee, a local artist who has, among other accomplishments, won the Stranger Genius Award. The portrait, which currently hangs at the Frye Art Museum, is part of a series, Still Lives, featuring the residents at a South Seattle nursing home. The video portraits bring Vermeer instantly to mind. These are tiny and silent moments in a universe that's too vast, too much. But Vermeer's 17th-century Dutch moments are sometimes precious and even memorable. The moments in Still Lives do not have such staying power; rather than sticking to or making an impression on the mind, they are doomed to slip into the darkness that frames them. You can remember the time a special someone first kissed you. You will never remember the time you napped in a nursing home.
What is the old woman dreaming about as she slowly breathes? The answer to this question appears to be in a darkish room that's next to the portrait. The room's ceiling is covered with little, blinking lights. Upon seeing them, I was reminded of the root of the word "consideration"—thinking of the stars. But these are not supposed to be stars; the lights represent raindrops. They appear above and plop their light on the floor. Strange sounds rise and fall. Occasionally, the melody of a lullaby begins and ends. The installation is called Rain Shower. A version of it was completed in 2007 and exhibited at Lawrimore Project in a very dark room. The space at the Frye, however, is not very dark and communicates with other spaces, and so you do not feel completely immersed in its sounds (low clouds? Distant thunder? Wind in the trees?) and flashing lights.
When I sat in Rain Shower for about 15 minutes, I kept thinking of the old woman sleeping by its west entrance. By connecting the two works of art into one, my imagination placed me within her sleeping head. The ordinary woman, an ordinary dream of light, water, and fragments of music. The dream seems to be composed of an experience that's deep in her past. Indeed, no amount of effort could make her mind recover the memory of this shower, but her dream easily stumbles upon it while playing with her past the way a child plays with old toys stuffed in a big box. I imagined the old woman waking up at some point and not remembering a thing: the moment the nap began—forgotten; the dream—forgotten; what woke her—unknown. Of Breath and Rain is spooky not in the ghostly sense (ghosts are, after all, life after life—Lee's work is only about the matter of life), but in the sense of memories, experiences, and moments being real but barely so.
At the center of Lee's Unplug, Try Again, a simultaneous exhibit at Lawrimore Project, is an art object about the insistence of being. Contact is a wooden box that contains electrically connected lead pencil filaments. The box looks out of place in a contemporary gallery; it instead looks like a historical artifact in a museum of industry and technology. We can easily imagine Contact being the crude and first something for something that's now as complicated and common as GPS. Contact, however, is super-high-tech. It's wired to respond to your mobile phone. You call it, a filament burns, smoke rises, and, after a couple of hours, the thing starts sending you texts. Our exchange:
Contact: You made a connection with me.
Me: you baffled me, you art object.
Contact: Hi, it's me.
Me: Can't chat today, art object.
Contact: Did you forget about me?
Me: yes, but you reminded me to pay my bank of america bill. thanks.
Contact: I'm trying to remind you of me.
Contact: Am I not a priority?
Me: not now. watching a movie.
Contact: Am I nothing to you?
Contact: I like being a priority.
Contact: Is there something I can do to make you want me?
Contact: Let me know you're out there.
Me: i'm busy at the moment.
Contact: It's just one text, you know...
Contact: Please reach out.
Me: you are so needy, now i know the soul of an art object.
If you do not respond for a week, it gives up and becomes what it fears most: forgotten.