Traipsing Ballroom Halls

August 26th, 2018  |  Published in July/August 2018

Carl Solway Gallery’s director Michael Solway has organized the first installation of video art and kinetic sculptures at Cincinnati’s newly and ornately restored Memorial Hall ballrooms. The intermedia exhibition, titled Body Language, features a myriad of carnal moving images and works by Detroit artist Cynthia Greig and Cincinnati natives Rachel Rampleman and Alan Rath. The experiential and observational new media installations, shown in seamless conjunction, feature aural soundscapes of droning electronic melancholia with video projections and moving sculptures. Patrons are provided with glimpses into each artist’s thematic take on framing the human body with digital referents. Greig invites “visual mistakes” into the ballroom halls, exploring the nuances between phenomenology and perception, drawing on the artist’s background in photography and print-media alongside art historical surveys. While Greig’s wall-sized projections set the foreground for Body Language, Rampleman’s multi-channel vignettes and layered subject-studies of femme personalities boldly negotiate activism with voyeurism. Alan Rath’s biomechanical kinetic sculptures fragment the human body in computer-animated still images, thus linking theoretical considerations (read: commodity fetishism and organizational control). Notably, the handful of works are considerably sparse, juxtaposed by the rolling, open, and ornamented ballroom halls where Body Language is limited to brief considerations, which at times disservices the artists displayed. Nonetheless, although Body Language’s total functions more effectively than the individual works, the show beseeches contemporary humanist considerations via the moving image.

Cynthis Greig’s “Museum Mandala” (2018) is a two-minute video loop edited with footage shot at the Detroit Institute of Arts. “Museum Mandala” offers a kleidoscopic catalog of museum attendees whose distorted extremities and bodies – a whirlwind of legs, shoes, and torsos – are fragmented into closed loops within the museum’s main entry staircase. Greig’s lens centers along the legs and feet of a crowd whose uninterrupted flow is suspended by stop motion sequences of a shadowy lone figure; the silhouette contemplates Caravaggio’s “Martha and Mary Magdalene,” the celebrated painting of Mary holding a mirror before her sister Martha. Greigg’s video mirrors the dramatic chiaroscuro effects of light and shadow in Caravaggio’s tenebrism, occluding and unfurling. As Caravaggio’s work often utilized familiar pedestrian figures to illustrate religious stories, Greig has recreated a contemplative work that contrasts the still beauty of the frozen painting – still in time and space – with a hectic, tumultuous framework of frenzy. Greig’s work often considers subversions of conventional representation and her pieces are rife with nods towards Dada performance. Thus, Cynthia Greig continues to make art historical claims in “Museum Mandala” by appropriating Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase,” which depicts the thwarted female muse, by showing abstracted figures and forms in motion.

“Museum Mandala’s” parallel with Duchamp’s painting is evident, though somewhat forced. Greig’s work displays bodies ascending and descending along the Detroit Institute of Arts staircase while clearly adopting Duchamp’s gradients and stylistic penchant. Greig focuses on frozen movement and the body’s contoured lines while adopting Duchamp’s flaxen, polychromatic warm palettes – ranging from yellow ochre to translucent black.

“Museum Mandala” is successful as a case-study of movement, landscape, and architecture and Greig mediates the experience of art with the intersection of spectacle. The piece offers a reflexive institutional critique via self-surveillance. Greig’s observers inherently perform in reflexive gazing, as the “undercurrent of desire connects the watched with the watcher, and suggests that there can never be a clear separation between the two parties” (Hu 128). As “Museum Mandala” features tacit self-surveillance, this also marks a monumental divergence from past works such as “Gallery Rubbings” (2013) and “Wood/Dust/Breath” (2011), which parse intimacy and target physical space without regard to mechanisms of power. Here, fragmenting institutional fixtures convert the open museum space into a hectic, prismatic chaos – one that faces inward towards the ballroom.

Rachel Rampleman’s “Bodybuilder Vignettes” (2016) and “Red Room Studies” (2017) operatively conciliate auteurism with theory. Both works are ten-channel video installations displayed on a tower of kindle tablets. “Bodybuilder Vignettes” showcases female bodybuilders while “Red Room Studies” contends burlesque performers. As with “Dancing Backwards in High Heels” (2017) and “Times Square” (2016), the multimedia artist continues to mend acerbic video art that challenges gender stereotypes and femme identity via documentary-viewership. However, these two works also contemplate the hypnotic poetry of voyeurism, a theme less recognized by commentators. As the oiled bodybuilders flex their muscle groups, turning away from the camera, they divide space and format a dance, belying traditional signification systems. Similarly, the burlesque performers coyly reveal illuminated body parts while blanketed by the illustrious reflective hues of crimson curtains and reflective satin garments.

A closed and surface level reading might underscore Rampleman’s obvious feminist considerations – she aestheticizes, extols, and celebrates non-conforming female bodies; these bodies deconstruct gender and, hence, the male gaze. However, such readings simplistically identify Rampleman’s work with her case studies, as critics have lauded her “subjects…often exuberantly bold and irrepressible female/femme personalities who revel in challenging outdated expressions of identity” (Seda-Reeder) and the “marginalized populations who take on a powerful stance repossessing language” (Albury). This is a reductive disservice to Rampleman’s operational faculties and her camera/editing choices. Rampleman’s camera posits viewers as inherent voyeurs, inviting existential qualms, therewith.

In Being and Nothingness, Jean-Paul Sartre describes the story of a man who gazes through a keyhole, absorbed by the scene (56). Sartre’s voyeur, immersed in the pleasure of looking, is suddenly startled by a sound – a nearby and unidentifiable clammer in the hallway or the rustle of leaves; suddenly, the voyeur believes he (too) is being watched. Sartre posits that the sound makes the voyeur aware of his own voyeur-ship and that it is precisely this realization—that someone else has been looking at him—which allows him to enter into Being. As Sartre identifies human relations by this battle of voyeur-ship and concealment, Rampleman’s cinematic lens allots us the perturbed poetry of prying. In both works, it appears as if the spectators are not aware of their voyeurs: although the bodybuilders are performing poses, their backs are often turned away from the spectator and the burlesque performers never make eye contact with the camera. The videos are devoid of audience or sound. Requisite and compact, Rampleman’s Kindles serve as voyeur-windows to observe spectacle, replete with the meditative pleasure of observing the performers’ dancerly loops. There subsists an uncanny peaceful quality to Rampleman’s works, as the screens are looking-glasses.

Rampleman’s “moment of interruption” (read: Sartre’s voyeur as he hears the hallway clammer) is sly and comic – a product of Rampleman’s sculptural concerns.  Her towering stack of ten kindles – or ten keyholes – before an appropriated open ballroom space fit with art installations’ functions as a constant reminder that we are not alone when engaging in the spectator/spectacle relationship. Furthermore, the sinuous, impenetrable snake pit of coils below the tablet towers adds an affective tinge to Rampleman’s multi-channel video piece, disruptively inviting tangible dimensionality within the relatively enshrined and quiet privilege of video-viewership. Rampleman’s pieces are keen and clever, carefully balancing theory with personal aesthetics.

Body Language also features Alan Rath’s “Bostock” (2012), a kinetic sculpture composed of custom electronics and five LCD screens that translate the lyrics of progressive British rock band Jethro Tull’s 1972 song “Thick as a Brick” into American Sign Language. The LCD screens display an image of a single hand moving from frame to frame as the screens accordingly advance. Rath is known for his intermedia work that traverses robotic sculpture and video art, at times posturing a contemporary Nam Jun Paik – works like “Arecibo” (1992) engineer responsive flux on television screens that engage in broken loops. Rath marries cold technological bodies with the human sensory experience, as evinced in “Bostock.” Thus, Alan Rath’s “live machines” are most successful in their bio-mechanics, as commentators and art critics often laude Rath’s sculptures’ “…uncanny, humanlike actions” (Wilson 395).

Body Language‘s artist statement notes that “Bestock” denotes Gerald Bostock, the fictional eight-year old boy that Ian Anderson (Jethro Tull’s lead vocalist) fictionally culled in the artist credits as the author of the epic poem (which the album is “allegedly” based on, though the lyrics were actually penned by Anderson). This underscores Rath’s immersion with the dialectic mythos of authorship/human emotions and robotic bodies.

In “Read My Lips,” (2012) Rath’s second sculptural display in Body Language, a woman’s vermillion-lipstick adorned mouth puckers soundless phrases, hence continuing Rath’s interests in “the taxon of constructed languages” (Adelman 546), designing visual vocabulary a posteriori to serve an ambiguous and mystic purpose.

Rath has a wealth of pieces that include enlarged eyes, mouths, and other body parts that not only serve as jocular fragments – ominous and uncanny – but explore the relationship between representation and linguistic meaning-creation. By using elements of existing languages, Rath simplifies and modifies signifiers while stripping them of number, gender, tense and mood. Bostock and Read My Lips deploy their languages via social and cultural context. As theorized by linguistic theorists who study the construction of a posteriori language, constructed languages such as Rath’s fragmented, soundless vernacular forms, involve themselves with a complex history of meaning-creation (Adelman 558).

Furthermore, Rath’s work is undoubtedly involved in humanizing robotics – he “notes that many of those who decry technology fail to see its relationship to…everyday life…and make unwarranted distinctions” (Wilson 396), but these two works do not serve his theoretical concerns justice, as they are an altogether quick and dismissive glance. As with Alan Rath: New Sculpture – the Carl Solway Gallery’s 2016 presentation of Rath’s work – “disembodied human parts” are, once again, “ever present in this show” (Byres), albeit too briefly. While the 2016 display afforded a great deal of generous understanding to Rath’s sculptures, the artist’s ideational and aesthetic pursuits feel amiss in Body Language, where the works are not shown in meaningful context. Rath’s balance of semiotics, constructed language, and humanist conditions fails to strike a chord within the ample ballroom space – a true shame considering Rath’s keen deliberation.

Although Body Language presents work that, at times, lack the poignancy further substance and frames of reference could wrest and evoke, the show negotiates varied and unique media-manifestations of the human body successfully. The show is certainly cohesive – there are uniting themes throughout all three artists’ works, including fragmentation of the body. Each artist divisively quarters or frames their represented bodies, exploring unique theoretical, sociological and philosophical boundaries.

–Ekin Erkan

Works Cited

Adelman, Michael. “Constructed Languages and Copyright: A Brief History and Proposal for Divorce.” Harvard Journal of Law & Technology, vol. 27, no. 2, 2014, pp. 544–562.

Albury, Vanessa. “On Rachel Rampleman’s Girls Girls Girls.” The Huffington Post, TheHuffingtonPost.com, 7 Dec. 2017, www.huffingtonpost.com/vanessa-albury/on-rachel-ramplemans-girl_b_7047000.html.

Byrnes, Susan. Human As Content: Alan Rath at Carl Solway :: AEQAI. AEQAI, 17 Dec. 2016, aeqai.com/main/2016/12/human-as-content-alan-rath-at-carl-solway/.

Hu, Tung-Hui. A Prehistory of the Cloud. The MIT Press, 2016.

Seda-Reeder, Maria. “’Dancing Backwards in High Heels’ at the Mini Microcinema.” Citybeat Cincinnati, local.citybeat.com/event/the-mini-microcinema.HvhzXH/dancing-backwards-in-high-heels-at-the-mini-microcinema.

Wilson, Stephen. Information Arts: Intersections of Art, Science, and Technology. The MIT Press, 2002.

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