"Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose. / Loveliness extreme." Those two lines from artist, writer, and poet Gertrude Stein's 1913 stream-of-consciousness poem "Sacred Emily" served as inspiration for Seattle-based artist Emily Tanner McLean's latest exhibition, Rose/rose/rose/rose, at Vestibule in Ballard.
The show turns the line of obsessive assessment of the flower (and of the self) into a multimedia art installation that explores the underlying sentiment of the original line (a thing is what it is), and the ideas of love, sex, and romance that are attached to the flower. The rose is everywhere in this show. Through sound and visual immersion, Tanner-McLean plays with the symbol of beauty and love with a curiosity that is compelling.
When entering the tiny, white-walled art space, you are immediately hit with the smell of roses coming from bouquets in the far-left corner, lit with ocean-blue light. They will be left to wilt and rot for the remainder of the show. In the back corner is a mini- video installation, Loveliness Extreme, where viewers can put on headphones to listen to Tanner-McLean recite a poem culled from the pages of her edition of an 18th-century book on the secret language of flowers. Roses mean love and beauty, of course.
The showstopper in the small gallery is Flower/Thorn, a digital, moving wallpaper that takes up an entire wall. The "wallpaper"—really, a projection playing a looping video—is dazzling. Here, the repetition of the Stein line (rose rose rose rose) is interpreted and played with visually. Its pattern is kaleidoscopic, set against a sky-blue background. A loud soundtrack plays over the video, a chopped and screwed rendition of "A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes," from the 1950 version of Cinderella that segues into intense, hyperventilating breathing.
Flower/Thorn is configured mostly of roses and bright green stems arranged in a way that creates a "looking box" that contains one upright flower in the middle. This pattern mirrors itself until it takes up the whole wall. Tanner-McLean told me she was drawn to wallpaper because of its function of covering up blank walls, projecting luxury and class in homes that may be a bit unspectacular. She looked primarily at patterns from around the time of the Industrial Revolution, when wallpaper became mass produced. The most common pattern was, funnily enough, a rose one.
In her rendition, a white hand continuously comes into the main frame to disturb the beautiful rose in some way—flicking it, groping it, or ruining and ripping off its petals; the action is both aggressive and strangely erotic. There's a violence done to the flower. I found myself wondering whether this violence is justified or just an expression of frustration with what the flower represents. Coupled with the blaring soundtrack, the wallpaper is a maddening but beautiful spectacle.
Tanner-McLean tells me that she's planning to host a special event on Valentine's Day, which will be a listening party of sorts, featuring extra audio components for viewers as they watch the wallpaper move. Visitors will also have the chance to spend the night inside the installation (Vestibule doubles as an AirBnB) if they so choose. To sleep within all that excess, all that color, all that meaning.