Art Seen: National

ABSENT SENSE: ALISON O’DANIEL // BEMIS CENTER FOR CONTEMPORARY ARTS

By Joel Kuennen

A braid of moving blankets flow down the wall and serpentines flush over the floor through Alison O’Daniel’s exhibition, Heavy Air, at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts. The braid serves both as a path and a barrier, with visitors gingerly stepping on or over composite foam pads. Their purpose in the wild is to be a buffer, to prevent the transfer of the sensory between objects so the jiggle wobble does not damage your coffee table. However, the transfer of the sensory is exactly what Heavy Air explores through a varied set of works that feel like vignettes, short explorations that each add a wobble to sensory experience. This plait of padding, The Changing Ground (2019), leads one into the dissembling of apperception.

When entering the gallery, one is greeted by cast copper hearing aids, The Audiologist’s Poem (2018), dangles on jewelry chain in front of black, felt sound dampening cloth. Immediately behind this and to the left is a two-channel projection of two segments from The Tuba Thieves (2013-Ongoing). One vignette is a reproduction of John Cage’s 4’33” at Maverick Concert Hall in Woodstock, NY, the same concert hall Cage premiered the work in 1952. The other is a reshoot of Bruce Conner’s 1979 punk concert at The Deaf Club in San Francisco. Cage’s 4’33” is in obvious alignment with O’Daniel’s goals. In the reshoot, much attention is paid to the audience, dressed in wool sport coats and cotton circle dresses, who sit in wonderment, befuddlement, and exasperation as the pianist’s stopwatch ticks away. In the middle of the movement, one exasperated spectator gets up and strides out of the hall. He walks into the surrounding forest, removes his shoes and crunches through the underbrush in his stocking feet. His frustration, or is it inspiration, turns to meditation as the ambience of the woods fills his senses.

Alison O’Daniel; The Tuba Thieves (still), 2013–ongoing; HD video, 16mm, VHS; Written, directed, edited by Alison O’Daniel based on musical scores by Christine Sun Kim, Steve Roden, and Ethan Frederick Greene. Produced by Rachel Nederveld, starring Nyke Prince, and cinematography by Meena Singh, Soraya Sélène Burtnett, and Judy Phu; Courtesy of the artist

The reshoot of Bruce Conner’s punk concert is joyous. The energy of the scene swells off the screen as the juxtaposition of rowdy moshers and septuagenarian card players creates an unusual tableaux. Many of the younger concert-goers are dancing to the pulse of vibrations and signing happily with each other. The short scene defies the expectations conjured when hearing the phrase “punk concert at the deaf club,” which could easily have been a NOFX album title, in that we as viewers begin to notice what participation can mean beyond the simple relationship of music playing → audience listening.

Towards the back of the gallery, a four-channel work, Sound Speeding (2019), isolates the *clap* from a clapboard marking playback in a film shoot. O’Daniel isolates a normally hidden moment necessary to mediated visual culture, the clap to forge synchronicity between the real world and the screen. This work draws attention to what we do to faithfully reproduce sound within a constructed, visual environment.

Heavy Air, the title of the exhibition, comes from the presence of a large HVAC that sits in the center of the main gallery, its low hum a constant companion. O’Daniel has covered the boxy structure in images gleaned from Pinterest boards that depict modes of bodily communication. Hand and Body Language (2019) presents a cacophony of non-aural communication, unfurling a richness that is often minimized or forgotten.

Alison O’Daniel: Heavy Air, 2019. Installation view. Courtesy of Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts. Photography: Colin Conces.

Adjacently, a room blocked off by more felt blankets houses Room Tone (2019), a PA playing ambient noise recorded by friends and collaborators from the Deaf and Hard of Hearing (DHH) community, such as Chicago-based Joseph Grigley. This gesture of including others in her practice can be seen throughout the entirety of the exhibition. Her video works evolve as she receives feedback, she regularly collaborates with artists from the DHH community. Artist and composer Christine Sun Kim, who worked on the score for The Tuba Thieves, makes another appearance in O’Daniel’s work in the back of the gallery, where a glowing neon light beckons from behind curtains. The Changing Sky (2019) represents the shape Kim’s hands and arms form as she makes the sign for the name of the work.

Communication rests on our sense of the world. O’Daniel’s work, varied as it is, always circles back around to the possibilities inherent when communication does not go as we expect, when the smooth-functioning of our apperception of reality is called into question. Those blips of dissonance from our interior experience of reality call for reconfiguration, and force us to reorient ourselves within the world.


Alison O’Daniel: Heavy Air runs at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts through June 15, 2019.

This text was written while Kuennen participated in THE SEEN Critic-in-Residence program in partnership with the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts.

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