Reviews of Sondheim/Thornton exhibition:

Review #1: LAWEEKLY'S pick of the week


Review #2: by Axel Idiarté Monito (below)

[a review of Em/bedded, Alan Sondheim with Leslie Thornton, at Track 16 Gallery, Bergamot Center, Santa Monica]

          Axel Idiarté Monito

"…the sense of [X] is its translation into [X]…"
—Charles Sanders Peirce, paraphrased

Alan Sondheim is an enigma, or, more precisely he presents several forms of the enigmatic: a poet inscribed into a theoretical/philosophical register, a video artist within the experimental film community (and vice versa), a classically untrained musician enamored with the digital, a writer who unwrites almost everything he touches, a performer who erases the distinctions between life and art. I can think of no more appropriate title than "Em/Bedded" to describe his current foray into the visual and installation arts arena.

One might be tempted to describe the four rooms at Track 16 Gallery (Bergamot Center, Santa Monica) as particuliarly modern forms of wunderkammer, cabinets of curiosity and marvel, an accretion or compiling of aspects and elements, giving eloquent expression to the rampant, inchoate, incohesion of the contemporary cultural scene. Or, perhaps, of Alan Sondheim's fertile and insuppressible imagination. On close inspection there are stunning surprises and resonances in the unexpected reassertion of sense. Everything in embedded into everything else, original into copy/copy into original, text into image, invisible into visible, body into other. This is done with a remarkable grace and care. Through Sondheim's eye—he has a remarkable visual acuity—even the most overlooked and over-familiar aspects of our everyday modernity –a ride on a tram, a walk in a field, the ubiquity of low frequency radio transmission –open anew, like blossoms, revealing a profound and unexpected complexity and depth.

The largest space is taken up with a number of large projections, a kind of resumé of Sondheim's recent concerns with environment, dance, technology and the body. Sondheim has collaborated with dancer/choreographer Foofwa d'Immobilité and several of the works tamper with, re-and de-construct the commitment of the body to movement and place. There are both playful and dangerous intervals, as the relation between dance and sexuality, injury, or composure, are explored. Similar revelations occur in the relationship between technology and the body. In one of the most beautiful scenes, a nude woman wraps, unwraps, and re-wraps a VLF (very low frequency) wire radio antenna around her body, producing a haunting almost-rhythm, a ghost of music and dance. A bit later, a nude man, twisting and contorting vigorously, provides a belated counterpoint. At the same time, his gyrations (we see both figures, male and female, at various times and in varied situations) operate like a visual relay, moving forward, mapping his [real] body into the impossible configurations represented by Sondheim's 3D figures, digital 'avatars' who tumble about and dissect the visual/architectural/ cinematic space that they inhabit. And then they go on a road-trip, a cross-country jaunt infecting just about everything with their semi-virtual 'presence'. As the projections continue, several monitors displaying texts and images seem to comment upon or infuse the larger projections. In the middle of the dark space are two tents, splayed and propped open in an unusual manner, illuminated by a deep red light. Attached to a military field-telephone inside the tent, is a wire leading up into a kite, of the sort used to carry antennae aloft for military communications. It, too, is splayed, fragmented, and propped open. But this is to touch upon just the surface…

Two smaller rooms are populated by a collection of Sondheim's monoprints, framed in sets of two, in poetic, formal, dialectical, or cryptic relation. The original digital files for these prints no longer exist, so these material 'traces' are the only evidentiary remains of this body of work. In this sense they are a poignant comment on the WWII-era photographs of Japanese soldiers displayed nearby, lost relics in repose, lying next to digital scans of the same images, recto and verso, an inversion/recursion of memory and loss. What does one do when confronted by such artifacts? What might one do in confrontation with any—every—artifact? This is a philosophical vein that carries throughout Sondheim's oeuvre, surfacing intermittently. The photographs and their copies are collected and displayed in a large vitrine, of the sort one might expect to fine in a museum of natural history, or anthropology. These are appropriate allusions, and Sondheim plays upon these tropes in two more vitrines, located in the second of the smaller rooms. Antiquarian books, statuary, 'dead' technologies, things and representations, are gathered together, a cacophony of 'voices of things' (Francis Ponge comes to mind), all trying to tell their stories all at once, all participating in each other's narratives. It is such an affective and disarming meditation on the disposition and propensity of things—artworks included—that one cannot help but be moved.

But there is another important element in this room: a nine-foot tall, peaked, structure of wood, metal and fabric, the apparitional "idea of a tent" constructed by Leslie Thornton. Thornton, a film and media artist, and a friend of Sondheim's, was invited to participate in this exhibition with a tent-form designed as an armature for a dual-channel audio/video work, entitled "Let Me Count The Ways…" Thornton's bare approximation of a tent enters into a complicated relation with Sondheim's flayed tent-like structures in the projection space. With the most minimal means, Thornton's piece embeds itself within Sondheim's, as his work does with hers. A second military telephone inhabits her 'tent' and, while the tents in the outer room present a surface that resists, and so take up a place contradistinct to the projections, Thornton's transmissions (inverse projections) are contained within her imagined territory, its extent framed by the armature. What is remarkable is that given the resonances and affinities of their respective works, the pieces remain distinct and autonomous, exemplary of the richness of their collaborative interaction.

There is also a fourth room, a kind of referential play on Track 16 itself, which consists of a sound installation and projection within a railroad dining car which is, itself, embedded—literally walled in—within the gallery.

But how to summarize? The relations between different registers of projection, transmission, performance, and re-presentation would, if taken as a single work, be several months long. It is similarly difficult to consider this a collection of individual works. Without discrete and discernible terminal boundaries, one does not know where one work begins, and another disappears. While both situations present difficulties for the protocols of consumption and comprehension that we are accustomed to, I would instead praise the audacity of Sondheim's empathy, and the sensitivity of his regard for the truth of process, even his generosity towards the audience…

I'll try to summarize once again: if a simulation, which always purports to be real, is taken as such, it is impossible to know that it is a simulation. It is only in that moment of collapse—perhaps only in the nanosecond of teetering before the collapse—that a dissimulation reveals itself as having been a simulation, that what we have taken for real was only 'real' as long as we took it as such. Things are, as, and what, they are only insofar as we apprehend them—catch them, fix them in our consciousness, don't let them go. What Sondheim's (and Thornton's) works do, consummately, and brilliantly, and compassionately, is compel us to release our most ingrained habits, presumptions, and anticipations, the more rigid forms of our technical unconscious, so that—for the briefest moment—the tracery of things opens up…

© Axel Idiarté Monito   Los Angeles, California 2006