‘Promiseland’ at the UW Memorial Union

Yesterday afternoon I stopped by the Porter Butts Gallery on the second floor of the Memorial Union, fully intending to check out the new Robert Burkert exhibition, which opened July 31st and will remain there until September 5th; however, I hardly looked at any of the paintings, striking as they may have seemed from the cursory glance I gave ’em. Instead, I found myself spending 15-20 minutes with the installation piece currently occupying the Class of 1925 Gallery, entitled Promiseland, a collaboration between BA Harrington and Chele Isaac.

The installation consists of three video projections on three adjacent walls in a four-walled room, with an inexplicably bare bed-frame positioned in the center of the room; the bed-frame divides the physical space of the installation diagonally while also asserting itself as a kind of non-presence at the heart of everything. The text accompanying the installation explains the work as an effort to demythologize the American West, though detecting such an intention in Promiseland would seemingly require a very specific route of abstraction on the part of the spectator (a route I can’t say I personally took). The installation presents a number of images, mostly views of vast prairie landscapes, horizons drowning in the half-light of dusk, and lifeless flat-lands cluttered with broken-down cars.

The soundtrack consists mostly of nature sounds (birds chirping, maybe some running water a few miles away, winds scraping against great mosaics of dust-encrusted rock, the occasional tumbleweed solo) juxtaposed with sporadic harmonica cameos and quasi-requiems. This aural confusion at once suggests something irrevocably lost and something never quite had (thus the mythological component of the work, I suppose). One doesn’t just stand there looking at the clutter and the debris: the cameras take turns slowly studying these objects, chipping away at the metaphysical soot that conceals the mise-en-scène’s array of skulls, rocks, long-abandoned technological artifacts, etc.

Every now and then one or several silhouette figures infiltrates one or several of the screens; these are the outlines of the frontiersman who once breathed this air, stepped on this dusty ground, listened to these renegade winds and pathetic harmonicas. These figures are not ghostly in any conventional sense; instead, they appear to be composed entirely of light and some sort of ethereal plasma, the kind of specters one imagines Robert Ford would’ve seen if he’d gobbled up a few tabs of acid after shooting Jesse James in the back. We see a woman in a pink coat, wearing a white cap, peering through binoculars at some far-away nothingness; 360-degree tracking shots isolate her in relation to the rest of the inhuman vastness we’re shown (vaguely reminiscent of some of the shots in Antonioni’s The Passenger and Zabriskie Point).

The most striking aspect of the work is its overdetermined cinematography; sweeping multi-screen pans cause images to collide with and/or retreat from each other; the woman in the pink coat vanishes in the margin between the left and center screens as she makes her way from the left screen, panning toward the center, to the center screen, panning right at the same speed. These visual tensions call attention to the speed of the mobile framings, as well as the dialectical logic that went into the composition of such a work.

Whether Promiseland succeeds in shedding light on the history of the American West, I can’t really say; I do know that, aesthetically, it’s a pretty intense experience. Like the Burkert show, Promiseland will be at the Class of 1925 Gallery from now until September 5th.

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