Art Seen: National

SHIMON ATTIE // ST. LOUIS ART MUSEUM

By Brian Prugh

There is something lurking under the surface, or multiple surfaces, of Shimon Attie’s Lost in Space (After Huck). The exhibition invites multiple readings that stack up like floors in a building; what is lurking beneath cuts away at the foundation, threatens the carefully constructed structure, but also carries the potential of new possibilities.

There is the show I expected to see, an “immersive site-specific installation” with a “ghostly white raft” somehow related to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn carrying artifacts related to the novel and a siren light. The raft “floats in the middle of the room” surrounded by a six-channel video projection depicting “floating clusters of light punctured by flashes of lightning” (as described in the exhibition flier). I expected to walk into an eerie, “otherworldly” landscape, full of uncanny motion; I expected to feel like I was drifting with the ghost raft, lost in space, as it were. These were the terms that seemed most appropriate for the territory of the work as I walked into the room, waited for my senses to adjust to the darkness and the slow crescendo of ambient sound in order to immerse myself in this floating world.

Installation photo of Lost in Space (After Huck) by Shimon Attie at the Saint Louis Art Museum.

Installation photo of Lost in Space (After Huck) by Shimon Attie at the Saint Louis Art Museum.

And while I never quite felt immersed in this world, it evoked a wide range of associations. I was thinking about Huck, who helps Jim escape from his owner (in spite of his own reservations), thinking about their journey down the Mississippi, floating by St. Louis, thinking about the city and protests against racism and police violence, thinking about how all of this ties together in the present moment in the exhibition, in a sort of cosmic setting, adrift from earthly gravity. Is Huck here to save us? Can we find within ourselves the goodness that seems connatural in Huck and Jim? Is there a way forward here?

As the associations swirled round my head, I began to notice that I couldn’t get comfortable in that current. Something was amiss; the experience felt stiff and slightly off-kilter. For one thing, the raft, while it was suspended above the ground on stilts, didn’t seem to be floating. It was too still, and I knew that there is nothing light about that cast resin. Also, the projections didn’t quite line up with the raft in such a way that they lent their motion to the sculpture. I looked up to see the projections, and down to see the raft. I always saw the raft against a static, dark background—never against the gently floating clusters of lights. I started noticing other things: the lights of the projectors themselves, shimmering above the screens like the light clusters on the screen, suddenly seemed important, considered. As my experience grew more distant from the immersion that I expected, I became forcefully aware that I was in a museum, that the raft sculpture was self-conscious about being in a museum, and that there wasn’t any illusion of floating in space—at least not for the raft. I walked around the raft on solid ground, and it was as solid as I was.

I was getting more comfortable in my awareness of my mediated environment when I realized that the gently floating motion did not relate specifically to the raft, but to the room itself. The only way to get a sense of floating was to look at the ring of projections around the room as a window, with the floating landscape visible through it. The whole room was floating, or the whole museum was floating, and while the gravity of the museum held me down, we were all on a journey in that vague, dark starry space.

I had noticed that what looked like stars weren’t organized like stars; the museum wall text informed me that they are based on photographs of the United States taken by NASA satellites. So these are human lights—not celestial ones—so this is another level of commentary of our mediated, technological existence. The “landed lights” are actually quite significant in Twain’s novel: instead of navigating by the celestial stars, Huck and Jim navigate by the terrestrial lights. Because they have to travel at night, to prevent anyone from seeing Jim, they gauge the progress of the night by when the lights go off in the late evening and then begin to flicker awake again before the sunrise. When they see those first sparks on the shore, they begin looking for a place to stash the raft and hide for the day.

Untitled video still from Lost in Space (After Huck), 2017; Courtesy of Jack Shainman Gallery, New York © Shimon Attie WUSTL-Shimon Attie Photo by Whitney Curtis/WUSTL

Untitled video still from Lost in Space (After Huck), 2017; Courtesy of Jack Shainman Gallery, New York © Shimon Attie
WUSTL-Shimon Attie
Photo by Whitney Curtis/WUSTL

Suddenly everything seemed to be about mediated experience, and I began to feel immersed in the heady, theoretical space I recognized from grad school critiques. But there is one element in the show that doesn’t fit that space well: the lightning. In the novel, the lightning is notable for illuminating everything—for breaking the spell of the darkness of the night and for letting Huck and Jim see what was around them. It acts as a kind of intermittent revelation, and a somewhat terrifying one at that. In the projection, the lightning flashes are accompanied by loud rumbling audio. It made me jump each time the flash came around on the screen and the volume ramped up.

What was far more disconcerting however was the one time in the projection (at the end, I believe) that there was no audio: the lightning flashes, and there is silence. The silence rang louder than the “thunder” because I felt like I was jolting awake from a dream—a dream where I die, and see the action but don’t hear anything, and wake up in a sweat. The conditioning in the installation to expect the “thunder” with the lightning, and the removal of that “thunder,” was like a rip in the experience: it opened the experience—out of a claustrophobic self-conscious commentary on mediation, out of a jaunt into the nineteenth century or through contemporary political issues, and into the somewhat startling space of a crucial—perhaps devastating—revelation.

This momentary, visceral feeling of being ripped out of a dream calls for a re-evaluation of the entire experience of the work; now I must re-interpret it in dream language, a symbolic landscape that has something—perhaps something urgent—to tell me. I’m not going to venture into a third reading of the work, but linger on the suddenness of the revelation: the call to re-evaluate, the sense that something has happened, and the feeling that this is more than just an academic exercise. Because everything about the work feels academic, everything except the momentary flash, the silence, and the uncertainty: in short, the sense (or hope) that there is more at stake than it looks like there is, and preserved in this the sense that art can, when pushed beyond the limits we’ve drawn around it, do more than we expect it to be able to do.



Currents 113: Shimon Attie: Lost in Space (After Huck) runs at the St. Louis Art Museum, through June 25, 2017.

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