Tuesday, February 23, 2010

On ‘Notes to Nonself’ at the Hyde Park Art Center


'Notes to Nonself', multimedia installation by Diane Christiansen + Shoshanna Utchenik, Hyde Park Art Center, Chicago

You enter a long, high-ceilinged gallery filled with six-foot high fir trees, their outlines cut from plywood in the simple zig-zag shapes of a child’s drawing. Stuck to the surface of the trees are hand-written phrases, drawings, and linocuts representing people, skulls, prayer flags, organic shapes. Overhead float clouds cut out from paper, hand-painted, and suspended in the air by monofilament. You pick your way through the slightly menacing forest and come upon a life-size pink octopus occupying the centre of the gallery. At the back of the room is a clubhouse, about five feet in each dimension, raised up nearly six feet from the ground, with a ramp leading from ground level up to the entrance. Dominating the space is an animation, projected on the mezzanine wall and running the entire thirty feet length of the room.

Welcome to ‘Notes to Nonself’, a multimedia installation by Diane Christiansen and Shoshanna Utchenik. My first response was: bewildered, but intrigued. The overt meanings are difficult to grasp at first, so I paid attention to how the objects were made: a combination of pleasingly hand-made improvisations and haphazardness that could only come from two very skilled pairs of hands. The more I looked, the more it felt like being let loose within a dream from the Unconscious, where objects and images appear for no apparent purpose, and yet they form themselves into narratives that compel precisely because of their strangeness.

It turns out that I was getting some of what the artists wanted to convey. The accompanying notes contain a lot of information about dharmas and psychological zones and Buddhist principles for living. More interesting, perhaps, is the fact that a lot of the phrases, texts, and sketches pasted onto the trees came about from material that was mailed back and forth between the two artists, one of whom was living in Slovenia at the time the show was being developed. In an email conversation, Shoshanna Utchenik told me that one artist might add a speech balloon with words to a drawing sent by the other. If one artist sent something too 'ego-driven', the other artist might draw something satirical over the top, and this would become incorporated in the final show. The collaboration therefore became about literally bridging distance between people, and the desire to make connections.

The show appealed to my personal involvement with image and text, too. All of these themes were summed up impressively in the colossal animated projection, which I watched twice.  

‘Notes to Nonself’ runs until May 2nd, 2010 at the Hyde Park Art Center, Chicago.

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