Tivon Rice's newest sculpture takes up two rooms. It has dangling white fluorescent tubes for arms, two video monitors facing each other in a feedback loop for eyes, a camera for a heart, a computer for a brain, and, in the back room, a live-feed video that is continually processing and projecting the information from the front room—a consciousness? The fluorescent lights click and flash, and as you walk toward the camera on its tripod at the center of their spiral pattern, the lens captures you and throws you into its loop on the monitors. You appear a few seconds after you're picked up (the first time, this is a surprise); there's a delay, and then you see yourself on the monitors in the middle of this perceptual storm.
Shortly after you leave the room, you are forgotten entirely. You have to keep reappearing in order to keep existing here; there is no archive accumulating what the camera sees and what the computer processes and projects on the wall of the back room. You have been deposited in the center of a photographic process that is never complete; you can be visible over and over, but there is no final print and no decisive moment, in Cartier-Bresson's terms. As much as you and this time and place are being represented, explored, and found, everything is also passing by, getting away, being lost.
Rice is the most visibly promising of the students at DXArts, the digital media program at the University of Washington. He is a certified nerd both in technology and art history, and from his work you get the feeling that while he can't help disappearing down those holes, he always hopes to come out the other side. This new show—his first solo at Lawrimore Project was three years ago—is called A Macrocosmic Zero. That's the title of the large, two-room sculpture, which is joined by smaller works dealing with portraiture. Along the walls, four videos of faces (studies for portraits, after Francis Bacon's paintings as portraits-in-continual-progress) disintegrate digitally yet keep their recognizability even as they transform. On a shelf is a small cathode ray tube monitor, lit from within and bearing the image of the artist's face. There is no actual video of the artist's face playing; this is just the result of having played a video of his face so continuously on this screen—for 3 years, 10 months, and 2 days, according to the piece's title—that it burned onto the screen. The subject is twice-departed; it's strangely touching.
Over coffee at last week's Art Klatch (a weekly pickup band of art discussers), a bunch of people, including Rice and art historian Ken Allan, sat around and talked about the large sculpture in terms of 1960s land-art classics like Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty and Walter De Maria's The Lightning Field. The similarities in form are plain: Rice sets up his path of fluorescents so it forms a spiral you can walk along, and the clicking and flashing of the lights in irregular patterns can be seen as an electronic lightning storm you're invited into. But there are more profound connections, too. Smithson was obsessed with displacement, with the way that a work as large as Spiral Jetty circles you around and around a vision that multiplies and refuses to sit still—there is no single view of the sculpture that suffices to represent it (aerial shots are notoriously nondescript), and depending on climate patterns, it can disappear under the water of the Great Salt Lake entirely. Meanwhile, as Kirk Varnedoe points out in Pictures of Nothing, what's most striking about The Lightning Field, De Maria's one-mile-by-one-kilometer grid of rods in western New Mexico, is that lightning rarely strikes it. Looking for the lightning, you find everything else: slight changes in light and movement on the plain, the wind, the sky, birds, rules both human and otherwise. The best portraits, these artists imply, are the ones that are always changing. Try to look directly at something and you'll miss it entirely.
A Macrocosmic Zero is about as high-tech as art gets, but it connects to another series of portraits by a Seattle artist, this one using a mid-19th-century process called ambrotype. In Daniel Carrillo's creaky-floored Georgetown studio, subjects sit for ambrotypes—positive silver images on glass plates—by remaining extremely still for up to 12 seconds in a central cocoon of blinding lights and a large reflective panel (like the core of Rice's spiral). (Subjects who can't sit still have to wear a neck brace; the whole thing is a little S&M.)
The shutter is open such a long time that the final image on the glass plate is clear in places and ghostly in others; it hovers with the buzzy insight that a single photograph can be made up of so many moments. While sitting for one ambrotype, a lot happens. Several eye blinks, all too fast to be recorded, for instance. And over the course of 12 seconds, a lot runs through a mind. It's a funny, heightened state: being aware of what isn't going to be in a picture as much as what is.