An unmiraculous place where anything can happen: alternative temporality in the work of Ann Lislegaard

By Claire Barliant
Published in Ann Lislegaard_2062 Catalogue for The Henry Gallery, 2009

An unmiraculous place where anything can happen: alternative temporality in the work of Ann Lislegaard”

After witnessing a total solar eclipse on June 27, 1927, Virginia Woolf noted in her diary that “the light sank & sank…when suddenly the light went out. We had fallen. It the earth was extinct. There was no colour. The earth was dead.” Woolf was hardly alone in viewing this as a life-altering experience. This spectacular occlusion would hasten a popular understanding of the theory of relativity that forever changed our thinking about space and time. Along with the general acceptance that space was so large as to be almost outside of human comprehension, Earth became a mere blip, possibly an accident, and was duly knocked from its position of centrality. Returning from “Eclipse Expeditions,” scientists excitedly confirmed Einstein’s mind-bending hypothesis, proving that space is crooked rather than straight. And Woolf started writing Orlando (1928). In this witty, agile novel, the lead character defies not only the laws of time but also gender, shifting seamlessly from male to female as she/he lives through several hundred centuries. In the spirit of the Modern age, and perhaps directly as a result of these discoveries, Woolf’s writing (and that of many others) began to relentlessly question all conventional wisdom, pushing back on the exclusive, imperious trajectory of linear time.

Though Ann Lislegaard’s practice (engaged as it is with contemporary science fiction) would appear to have little to do with Woolf’s playful, quasi-fictive biography of Vita Sackville-West, there are many shared motifs between the book and the artist’s recent production. Like Woolf, in her videos and sound works Lislegaard invokes imagined worlds that have moved beyond traditional gender roles, embracing many types of sexuality, including the hermaphroditic. These worlds don’t conform to any rule that governs our reality, including ordinary Greenwich Mean Time, instead following unfamiliar rhythms and patterns. The absence of regulated time is a recurring theme in Lislegaard’s work, yet this dimension has been curiously overlooked. Not surprisingly, many critics have focused instead on the allusions to architecture in her video installations. The surreal interiors that appear in the artist’s animations, as well as her use of the video projection as a tool with which to reconfigure the physical space of the gallery, all contribute to a subtle undermining of architectural rigidity. But the erosive effect of time is architecture’s worst enemy, and Lislegaard, who often uses science fiction as the departure point for her video and sound pieces, has explored the idea of alternative temporal realms repeatedly, both directly and indirectly.

A work from 1997, ominously titled Nothing But Space, offers an early glimpse at Lislegaard’s interest in temporal manipulation, a thematictheme that she has honed and refined over the course of the past 10ten or 12twelve years. On either side of a partition wall are projected identical videos showing people moving through an obscure, organic environment. The artist achieved this effect by filming through reflective foil, thereby giving the viewer the sense of looking through a funhouse mirror. The title’s phrase is ambiguous, suggesting, on the one hand, that space is a luxury, something to be valued and enjoyed. On the other hand, one could interpret the title literally, as a perverse representation of a space where time has no purchase, resulting in a suffocating, stilted, frozen universe. A physicist would never waste energy contemplating such an impossible occurrence, but for artists and writers, the idea of freezing time has provided fodder for countless visions of an icy, terrible future.

Artistic license aside, philosophical notions of time are often divided into two categories, linear and cyclical. Linear time is characterized as industrial, historical, and even patriarchal, while whereas cyclical time is described as organic, repetitive, and matriarchal. Yet such Manichean breakdowns do a disservice to efforts to promote a more nuanced view of time, particularly as it affects—and is affected by—gender and racial politics. (When it comes to the feminist movement, few issues are as contentious.) Apart from the linear and the cyclical, there is a third temporal structure to consider—time as a spiral, in which the present, past, and future can be contemplated simultaneously. According to scientific historian Heide Göttner-Abendroth, while cyclical time and linear time are ideological constructs, but “the concept of spiraling time seems more realistic, for it rests on concrete observation of the movement of stars in space.”

Though its manifestation is almost invisible, the spiral is an important formal device undergirding many of Lislegaard’s animations. In the artist’s 2005 work Bellona (After Samuel R. Delany), a computer-modeled point of view, or “camera,” moves from one room to another, circling a computer-generated architectural space. The rooms are lit by hanging globe lamps, and as the camera moves, the light turns on and off, controlled by an unseen hand, and; the color of the rooms changes from one vivid hue to another. A diagram of the plan for this structure makes the camera’s motion clear, showing its circuitous route through six rooms, four of which are linked together by doors (the other two stand as separate chambers that appear not to be connected to the rest of the structure). Though the camera is not following the trajectory of a spiral per se, since it doesn’t appear to emanate from a central point, its relentless circular motion evokes the sensation of being caught in a spiral labyrinth. The soundtrack reinforces the video’s seductive, maze-like structure. Sentences plucked from different pages of Samuel R. Delany’s 1974 novel Dhalgren are compiled together into a single, fluid passage that provides the audio. “In this timeless city,” the voice-over intones, “in this spaceless preserve any slippage can occur.”

During my first viewing of this piece, I assumed the lack of time and space were threatening, evidence of an “unsettling place.” At the time, Hurricane Katrina had just hit New Orleans, and it was difficult not to view the video without putting it in the context of this abandoned city, however remote this association was from the artist’s original intent. Years later, I have a slightly more optimistic take: it’s possible that Lislegaard’s Bellona is an homage rather than a warning of sorts. As described by Delany, the city of Bellona is a wild and dangerous place whose governing agents have fled, yes, but it is also home to a group of polymorphously perverse individuals liberated from the constraints of traditional gender roles. And within this realm, where all possible sexual orientations are permitted, “normal” rules (including those that regulate time) are no longer a given. Instead, according to the voice-over: “the miracle of order has run out, and I am left in an unmiraculous place, where anything can happen.”

The movie began as a set of disconnections, a bramble of stabilized fragments taken from things obscure and fluid, ingredients trapped in a succession of frames, a stream of viscosities both still and moving. And the movie editor, bending over such a chaos of ‘takes’ resembles a paleontologist sorting out glimpses of a world not yet together, a land that has yet to come to completion, a span of time unfinished, a spaceless limbo on some spiral reels. —Robert Smithson

“A film is a spiral made up of frames,” Robert Smithson once wrote in an offhand parenthetical. But the idea of a spiral as a vehicle for time—in this case, time as recorded images—is particularly important when searching for alternate ways of relating narrative. In the video installation Crystal World (After J G Ballard), 2006, Lislegaard again borrowed text from a work of science fiction, in this case J.G. Ballard’s The Crystal World (1966). Using computer-modeling software, Lislegaard constructed a house (based loosely on Lina Bo Bardi’s Casa di Vidrio in Sao Paolo). During the video, the seemingly uninhabited house is “invaded” by crystalline forms, and at one point appears to be flooding with water. There is more action in Crystal World than in Bellona, and unexpected objects crop up: an uprooted tree lies in one of the rooms, deliberately recalling Smithson’s 1969 sculpture, Dead Tree, Düsseldorf. Smithson’s thoughts on art that “allows the eye to see time as an infinity of surfaces or structures, or both combined” is clearly an influencing factor in this work, where hard, reflective surfaces endlessly multiply and have free reignrein. In another departure from Bellona, the color of Crystal World has been bleached out, and everything is in black and white. The accompanying text explains this in a series of captions, including the following: “Everywhere the process of crystallization is advancing /…a labyrinth of crystal caves / sealed off / …I quickly came to understand / that its hazards are a small price to pay / there are immense rewards to be found / in this phantasmagoric place / as more and more time leaks away.”

Just as Smithson compares raw, unedited footage to “a span of time unfinished, a spaceless limbo on some spiral reels,” Crystal World reflexively illustrates the trials and difficulties of making videos, which are invariably understood as linear. To counter this tendency the imagery is shown on a loop, as in Bellona, and both channels of Crystal World are deliberately not synchronized. So the text does not necessarily correspond to the same image over the course of two separate viewings—in other words, it’s impossible to see the same exact sequence of images twice in a row, unless the viewer waits 35 hours for the loops to run their course and return to their initial configuration. Though the image of the spiral is not literally present in this work, it is the basis for the work’s temporal and formal structure. In the instant the videos fall out of synch, they spiral away from each other, then spiral back to reconnect. Through this experiment with duration, Lislegaard successfully articulates Smithson’s idea of time as a multitude of surfaces, rather than as a single channel, and she synthesizes this philosophy with Ballard’s crystal labyrinth, “a phantasmagoric place” where time “leaks away.”

The basis of my paintings is this: that in each of them a particular situation is stated. Certain elements within that situation remain constant. Others precipitate the destruction of themselves by themselves. Recurrently, as a result of the cyclic movement of repose, disturbance and repose, the original situation is stated. —Bridget Riley

Repose, disturbance and repose. Bridget Riley’s description of the cyclic movement of her paintings, with its Kali-esque resonance, fits neatly into the type of temporality frequently linked with the feminine: cyclical, repetitive. And yet Riley’s art seems far removed from the socio-political realm, emphasizing the universal complexities of visual perception. But even a strictly formal endeavor can’t avoid an intensity that invites criticality. Take, for example, Paul Moorhouse’s description of Blaze 1, Riley’s tour de force 1962 painting of a circular structure that appears to be a spiral, but is in fact a series of concentric circles composed of zigzag lines: “The use of extreme contrasts—in direction and in the opposed character of zigzag and circle—immediately takes possession of the eye, returning its gaze in a display of blazing light, energetic upheaval and dervish motion.” Bringing up the gaze, a term with distinctly feminist overtones, reminds us of the power dynamic between the viewer and that which is being viewed, and Lislegaard is astutely aware of this relationship.

The deep mystery and intrigue of a structure composed of concentric circles, or the spiral, is that it returns our gaze, appealing to a primal yearning for communication and understanding. Göttner-Abendroth discusses the spiral as a form used by ancient peoples to communicate with nature, performing dance rites that imitated the moon’s spiral movement as a way to assure themselves that the seasons would continue to change. (These sites later evolved into labyrinths, which often take the form of a spiral.) Through its generative, cyclical motion, the spiral represents transformation for many cultures. Lislegaard’s three-channel video installation, The Left Hand of Darkness (after Ursula K. Le Guin), 2008, elegantly incorporates this ancient symbol, highlighting its complexity by drawing on the spiral’s power to evoke the gaze. The installation is a montage of dynamic, Riley-esque patterns and representational imagery, most prominently an androgynous figure demonstrating martial arts, with the words LEFT HAND and DARKNESS tattooed on the figure’s forearms. At any given moment one channel might show concentric circles rotating hypnotically, while another overlays anatomical drawings of the female and male reproductive systems, resulting in hermaphroditic sexual organs, and the third projection may reveal a block of text, words upon words forming a dense, thick swarm, or an assembly of ski poles, sleds, and other outdoor camping gear orbiting in space. With no way of anticipating which combination of images will appear, each permutation yields varying interpretations. Le Guin’s feminist science fiction novel serves as a distant touchstone, the outdoor gear referring to the icy, snowed-under planet that is the setting for the story, and the anatomical diagrams referencing its inhabitants’ ability to switch gender. In this work, where the spiral is featured more prominently than in any of her other videos, Lislegaard further expands on Smithson’s concept of an art that presents time “as an infinity of surfaces or structures,” using the three-channel presentation to fracture our perception of the present moment as unilateral. Rather than moving in one direction, the present moment contains “a million years” (to quote Smithson again).

For what more terrifying revelation can there be than that it is the present moment? That we survive the shock at all is only possible because the past shelters us on one side, the future on another. —Virginia Woolf

Echoing Smithson and Ballard, Riley’s recollection of a childhood swim is often quoted by critics writing on her work: “…all was bespattered with the glitter of bright sunlight and its tiny pinpoints of virtually black shadow—it was as though one was swimming through a diamond.” Having already tackled the visual problem of how to allow viewers to take in multiple surfaces at once, giving them, one might say, the opportunity to swim through a diamond, Lislegaard has also turned her attention to auditory reception—arguably a more complex challenge, since sound is frequently subordinate to sight, particularly when it comes to cinema. To that end, she has made two sound works using the soundtracks from science fiction films, collapsing, compressing, and extending them, so they no longer unfold in a linear fashion. Science Fiction_3112 (after 2001: A Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick), 2007, bears no resemblance to “real” sound, and instead is a symphony of glitches and shrill, grinding notes. She has compressed the entire movie to eight and a half minutes. Heard in an environment where it intermingles with everyday sounds, it provides an uneasy, churning backdrop to quotidian events.

In Science Fiction_3113 (after Close Encounters of the Third Kind by Steven Spielberg), 2008, her most recent sound work, distinct noises or voices are discernible. This work takes the soundtrack of Spielberg’s movie and distorts it, stretching it out and speeding it up, so the end result is a layered collage of rushing air, stuttering voices, whistles, and tuneless melodies occasionally punctuated by a clearly enunciated word, transmitted as though someone were rapidly turning a radio dial, trying to find a clearer signal.

In one of those rare moments of synchronicity, Science Fiction_3113 was installed last year in Denmark, in a formerly private park owned by the Carlsberg Brewery in Copenhagen. It is likely that physicist Niels Bohr walked these very grounds, since Carlsberg sponsored his research for several years. Working in England in 1913, Bohr developed the theory that atoms comprise a central nucleus with orbiting electrons, like planets rotating around the sun. From this discovery came the Caesium atom, which was used to make the world’s most reliable clock to date. According to Göttner-Abendroth, the regular vibration of the Caesium atom “became the tiny basic unit, permitting such unimaginable precision that even a millionth part of a second can be broken down into exactly equal parts.” Thanks to these breakthroughs, as Stephen Hawking observed, we can now measure time more accurately than length.

Atomic time may inspire fear through its militaristic implications, but ironically it brings us full circle, back to where we more or less started, closer to the spiral time used by ancient, matriarchal cultures. Indeed, physics accelerated our understanding of time as relative. Lislegaard’s work, taken as a whole, obliquely suggests that even as we attempt to chart an uncertain future (often by writing or reading science fiction), we are also always looking back, continually revising our initial impressions and reactions to events that seemed over and done with, existing only in the distant past. “Art is a mirror, which goes ‘fast,’ like a watch—sometimes,” said Franz Kafka. Kafka understood that art is often ahead of the rest of us. But the mirror he evoked also reflects the past and the present—it all depends on your vantage point.

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