Imaginative Feats

A new exhibit offers a visual challenge

By Mara Miller

When you walk into the gallery, the first thing you notice is a loud grinding noise, like gears or heavy cogs. The room is dark, but a rotating projector flashes alternating images at four large screens. On one, a child’s birthday party, then more scenes from everyday life. On another, animated lines of text. Turn around, and you see what that sound is-no gears, but an image of a giant manual stamp, like they use at a library checkout, angrily punching out dates.

This sound and video installation, called Guarded, is the first in John Muse and Jeanne C. Finley’s three-part exhibition Imaginative Feats Literally Presented: Three Fables for Video Projection, which opened Friday at Haverford’s Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery. Muse, now an Associate Professor of Fine Arts,was Haverford’s Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow last year. Finley has collaborated with Muse since 1988.

The pieces have each been shown at festivals and galleries across the country since 2003, but this marks the first time they’ve been assembled together.

The new exhibition has already generated chatter around campus for its portrayal of the ways in which Americans participate in and deal with the war on terror and our presence in Iraq through picture, sound, and text. Haverford, with its politically engaged population and pacifist Quaker roots, proves a rich launching point for Muse and Finley’s work.

Stunning…and confusing

At the gallery’s opening, the room and surrounding halls overflowed with people eager to see what the much anticipated exhibit, advertised mysteriously with camouflage-themed posters, was all about. On the next day, about 30 curious viewers returned for a more intimate talk with the artists, moderated by Andrew Suggs, Executive Director of Philadelphia’s Vox Populi art gallery.

This was a valuable chance to make some sense of the stunning, but undoubtedly confusing, set of images and sounds on display.

The text from Guarded was culled from Red Cross pamphlets discussing what citizens should do in a disaster. Muse explained that one of the driving themes of the piece was political manipulation in times of vulnerability. “We look at how people’s ability to be caring can be exploited for political purposes,” he said.

He also pointed out the simple scenes being projected intermittently, like people going to work or getting married, and their relationship to the dates and words. He said, “It’s about the very idea that a calendar can make intelligible the things we’re sensitive to.”

“The viewer is literally in the piece, since the projector’s in the middle, and your shadow is cast on the screen,” he said. “And you can never see both sides at once.”

That idea of a visual blind spot also turns up in the second piece Flat Land, where two video channels are simultaneously cast on one small, two-sided screen hanging. Here, one side illustrates the phenomenon of Flat Stanley, a paper cartoon character whom children create to send around the world, take pictures of him, and track his travels. The other side shows pictures of Flat Daddies, which are oddly and eerily similar cardboard cutouts of enlisted men and women, fighting abroad, that their families create as visual surrogates.

No wing of politics

Muse and Finley said they went to great pains to remove themselves from a political or social critique, and strove to “just put the images there, and get out of the way.” They want audiences to put aside their opinions on the war itself to empathize with the human lives featured in the piece. An image of a boy kissing a cardboard likeness of his military father is touching, not merely “patriotic,” regardless of whether you find that adjective positive or negative, they said.

Said Finley, “Some people think it’s right wing, or left wing, but really it’s not sarcastic or ironic at all. That hands-off attitude aims to deepen the true critical response.”

The exhibition’s third piece, Lost, is tucked in a corner with just one screen. It shows a foggy image of an abandoned military base, while a male voice narrates an army chaplain’s recollection of an Iraqi’s violent death. When the narrator utters the phrase “future sight” in his story, the words FUTURE SITE appear in the image. Otherwise, the picture does not change. “There is something really different and almost jarring about that pairing,” said Suggs.

The three pieces are not divided by walls but coexist in the same gallery space. “They’re separate, but we constructed it so they’d be able to have a conversation with each other,” said Finley.

“All these are usually images and ideas that people look away from,” she said. “But we want people to look at them.”

Suggs saw the exhibition as more of a question mark than a period: “It lets us ask, both physically and conceptually, where do I stand?”