February 12, 2012 § 5 Comments
Thinking about Brenda Goldstein’s Hereafter begins with an absent body. The work consists of a 35-mm film loop portrait of a nameless woman preparing an unseen body for burial, presented alongside a slide projection composed of quotes from various people about the experience of death. Everything you see in the film is clinical, austere; the only element commanding a visceral response to the subject matter is a jar of red liquid, embalming fluid, visible on the right of the screen. The work constructs a composite representation of the idea of death, within which the only warm body present is that of the viewer.
Goldstein structures her installation so that one can view the film loop and the slide projection inde¬pendently. Complementing this schema is the work’s third element, its “soundtrack,” which is the ambi¬ent noise made by the slide and film projectors. Hereafter’s sombre topic might cause its audience to disregard this sound in the room; to hear but not hear it. Rather than using recorded audio to reinforce thoughts of death, nailing down that signifier, Goldstein instead allows the ambient sound to enhance one’s experience of the space. Like a mechanical version of sentient breathing, the sound made by the projectors is a reminder for the viewer, however subtle, of their own presence. In this context, the instal¬lation’s audibility also works as a reminder of one’s own mortality; one reason why viewers may be less inclined to “hear it.” As well, Goldstein’s use of sound points to other ideas, implicit to the installation and beyond its ostensible subject matter.
Hereafter has no single focal point because the artist’s intention is to create an immersive environ¬ment; one that, through use of shifting points of interest is, arguably, more actively constructed by the viewer than would be the case if it was presented as a film. Between the two types of presentation, seated film viewing or walk-in installation, there is only a fine distinction: it is debatable whether one or the other provides the more “immersive” experience. Differing means of creating that experience is more to the point.
One inescapable precedent for Hereafter is Stan Brakhage’s The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes (1971). The film is shot in a morgue and documents a number of autopsies (the title is a literal transla¬tion of the Greek word, autopsia—to see for oneself). Brakhage’s immersion is more confrontational. By viewing the film, one is witness to an experience, that of seeing human bodies dissected, that few would actively seek out. Brakhage made the film as part of his larger project, the exploration of a number of themes that were central to avant-garde film at the time. Over his career, he made a slew of films in which various techniques of abstraction—such as variable focus, asynchronous sound, scratching and painting on the negative, and disjunctive editing—were used to create a poetics of perception. All of his works were predicated on the idea that the film material itself constituted a form of embodied perception and this is perhaps the reason Brakhage worked so hard to make its materiality evident. And if sight is an analogy for being, looking at the body as a starkly mortal entity gives this poetics its ultimate form of expression.
This digression into the world of 20th century avant-garde film is necessary because of what it tells us about the different set of assumptions guiding Goldstein’s work. For one, it gives us a clearer understand¬ing of the 21st century’s comparatively diminished faith in the visual. Hereafter’s visual component is diffused by the atmospherics of the text elements that accompany it. And it suggests that while intuitively a filmmaker like Brakhage understood the visual to be an aspect of embodied experience, Goldstein can make no such assumption. Her concern instead is to construct a different kind of body, one that is, among other things, a decidedly non-poetic being. In addition to the viewer in the room, the body Goldstein summons is the one that is typically elided by technologically mediated existence—especially because liberation from bodily constraints is the specific form of satisfaction mediation can offer. You could argue that locating the body is always the goal of the immersive artwork. It is why such works require an active viewer, one who can orchestrate an installation’s material synthesis simply by walking into it. (It is also the reason why the term “viewer” now reads as something of a misnomer; artworks today solicit a much more sophisticated kind of intelligence.) In the end, Hereafter is less about dead bodies than it is about living ones. The further we as a culture move into the everyday time and space travel of virtual technologies, the more we need to be reminded of who we are; sentient beings, limited and mortal after all.
More info about Brenda Goldstein can be found here.