Ghosts in the Machine at 516 Arts
Remember the good ol' days when you'd go to a gallery, the art would hang lifeless on the wall and the only sound you'd hear is the chitter-chatter of the people around you? Those days aren't quite a thing of the past, but nowadays when you visit a gallery, the art, as often as not, has motion sensors and flashing lights, robotic arms and an accompanying soundtrack. Sometimes you can even dance to it.
The SITE Santa Fe-curated exhibit running at 516 Arts is a fully modern multimedia experience, containing a single work by each of six internationally renowned video artists. Even traditional art enthusiasts should give this one a shot. Just think of it as a group of six photographs that happen to move and make noise.
The organizers put shading over the gallery's substantial two-story glass entrance to aid the viewing experience. Unfortunately, residual sunlight still washed out Japanese videographer Hiraki Sawa's piece “Trail,” located in the gallery's front room. This is a shame because it's a captivating piece. Tiny silhouettes of camels move incongruously across ordinary household items—chairs, stairs, sinks, etc. It's an oddball work, but it still has an old-time movie aesthetic that's comforting and familiar. One of the gallery employees told me the effect is more striking at night, so you might want to stop by the reception in October (see “Special Events”).
A couple video pieces by Cuban artist Ana Mendieta occupy opposite walls of the next room. One captures white fabric in the shape of Ana herself, prone on the ground, lit ablaze and consumed by fire. Another is supposed to be an outline of her body formed from mounds of sand, but these looked to me more like two turds knocked about in the surf.
Jeremy Blake's “Winchester” is inspired by the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, Calif. Sedate black-and-white portraits of the building morph into kaleidoscopic smears of color, mixed in with men brandishing Winchester rifles. It's the most brazenly hallucinogenic piece in the show.
All these videos have accompanying sound, although in the downstairs portion of the gallery, the ambient tracks tend to overlap each other. Upstairs there are only two pieces, and the two soundtracks don't meld together because one of them is produced through headphones.
The first—Isaac Julien's untitled video from his True North series—consists of a split-screen reimagining of Matthew Henson's journey to the north pole in 1909. A black servant of explorer Robert Peary, Henson was actually the first person to reach the pole, although the media of the time gave Peary all the fame and glory.
Julien's piece depicts Henson as a striking Black woman, moving gracefully through a brutal but beautiful landscape constructed almost entirely of ice. It's unnecessary to know any of Henson's backstory to appreciate the raw poetry of Julien's vision.
To take in Johanna Domke's “Let the Wind Blow,” you have to put on a set of headphones. This deceptively simple piece depicts a man and woman on a hillside, looking down on a city. The video crams a 24-hour period into slightly less than four minutes, so we see the clouds sweep dramatically across the sky, shadows shrink and grow, city lights flicker on and off, while the two figures remain stationary.
Domke's work is the most contemplative video in a show that seems designed for contemplation. I was glad to visit the gallery on my own, when the space was largely empty, to sit alone in the dark and let these images play across my mind. This is intriguing work on an ambitious scale we don't ordinarily see in downtown Albuquerque.