Questionable premise aside, Absence of Self offers some intriguing work | Features | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Questionable premise aside, Absence of Self offers some intriguing work

Wood Street Galleries exhibit features international artists, multi-media art

Absence of Self collects four works in differing media that, according to the mission of this Wood Street Galleries exhibition, share a common element: their creation or existence was accompanied by removal of the "immediate self."

Viewing this work philosophically, as the title prompts us to do, that mission is, first off, a little unclear. Does the "self" that's been jettisoned belong to the artist, or to the viewer?

No matter how that question is answered, next steps are a little tricky. One could argue that for art to exist, it's necessary for both maker and observer/participant to have a self. For the former, the self is behind the need to create art and the drive to execute it. For the latter, it's needed for receipt and interpretation of what's been provided, and for the formation of a response. Still, taking in these works with this idea in mind enhances the experience, even if the experience disproves the show's premise.

Ivana Franke's immersive work
Photo courtesy of Wood Street Galleries
Ivana Franke's immersive work "Seeing With Eyes Close," part of the exhibit Absence of Self

The exhibit is divided between the galleries' second and third floors. Because the more complex pieces are on the lower level, it's more fulfilling to begin on the third floor and work your way down. The least visually striking work is Bryndís Hrönn Ragnarsdóttir's "Buoy." Prior to the show's opening, the Icelandic artist danced boisterously through the room, armed with metal washers swung on cables, which banged into the walls, scuffing and denting them. What remains are the rough, unsanded smears of spackle that the artist applied to the dings and scrapes. Considering what's on view as the consequence of actions previous and unseen, visitors might find this a compelling and personal method of transforming the space. Or they might just think about all the living rooms they janked up at house parties back in the hardcore days. Considering it aesthetically, there is nothing gained from considering it aesthetically.

While in "Buoy" the viewer witnesses the aftermath of the artist's experience, with "Seeing With Eyes Closed," Croatia- and Germany-based Ivana Franke's contribution, the experience is a new territory in which each viewer plants her own flag. Seated on a pillow on the floor a few feet from an arc of LED lights, one visitor at a time closes her eyes as patterns strobe before her. While the result of the slightly more than three-minute sequence can be generalized as a quasi-hallucinatory series of pulses and throbs, the imagery will be unique to each person, creating a fully singular reaction. The visitor doesn't simply view the work; she completes it, providing the last element required for its full realization.

Both of those third-floor pieces are conceptual, sometimes overwhelmingly so. They're reliant on additional data that elaborates on the creation of what we see now, whether it's the artist wrecking a wall or programming electronic equipment. The second-floor pieces, both video-based, are richer and more rewarding. One of them allows us to observe the unfolding of a narrative, while the other includes us in the plotline.

In "Possibility, Will, Decision, Action," Mirjana Vodopija presents her story in three parts through three concurrently running video projections. The central one depicts the Croatian artist, her back to us, motionless but for her breathing, surrounded by snow in a featureless expanse. Another portrays a landscape of rocks and water, with an animated outline of the artist appearing and crossing through until no longer visible. The third shows the artist pushing forward resolutely through a field. The projections clearly transmit dream, inability, then finally, action.

The most intriguing work in Absence of Self is Lauri Astala's "On Disappearance." The Finnish artist appears in the projected video in a small, shabby room, reciting segments of text from Paul Auster's "The Invention of Solitude" and Leena Krohn's "Tainaron." This work is also experienced by one person at a time, with that person positioned specifically in the space in order to be captured in real time and inserted into the video he is watching. It's done precisely, bringing the observer seamlessly into the work and recasting him as a participant.

That first glimpse of yourself onscreen is jarring, especially if it's unexpected. Yet well within the span of this six-minute work, there is the feeling of full integration, leading to a heightened engagement.

It's difficult to imagine how the self is even remotely absent from any of these pieces, all of which rely heavily on the interpretation of the viewer, all of which are rich with the presence of the creator. What's easier to grasp is the connection established between the observer and what's observed.

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