At the Armory Center for the Arts, Pasadena
March 1 to June 23 2013
By: Astra Price
Standing in opposition to the notion of an artist locked away in a studio, the work of Connie Samaras finds its origin in journeys literally to the ends of the earth, where the edges of civilization are formed. Tales of Tomorrow, the survey exhibition of Samaras’ work at the Armory Center for the Arts in Pasadena, is a sampling of photos and single channel videos from several of her recent series which explores areas–near and far–that are forging new places for work and habitation.
Landscapes by definition, the photographs extend far past the extreme geographical and topographical aspects of the locations to probe the threshold of human intervention in those spaces. Photos from the series V.A.L.I.S. (Vast Action Living Intelligence System) show the tip of the world in the harsh, empty stretches of Antarctica: a field of snow and sky, with human presence signified by sparse structures that interrupt the vast spaces. Images fromSpaceport America chronicle the construction of a private enterprise space facility on the dry desert landscape of New Mexico. These images not only ask the viewer to contemplate the transitional space of boundaries between urbanity and the vast empty lands that lie beyond, but also to contemplate the entirety of the earth as a boundary to be penetrated.
Samaras challenges the viewer to look further into time through space.”
The primary body of the exhibition, photos from Samaras’ exploration based series (Angelic States-Event Sequence, After the American Century, V.A.L.I.S. (Vast Action Living Intelligence System), and Spaceport America), create a space of loneliness and tension. With people as the primary subject in only one photo, Workers Checking Fountain Nozzles, 1, humans can be seen only as part of the larger texture of the landscape of work (Construction Labor, Sheikh Zayed Road) and play (Star Trek Casino, Rio, Las Vegas). Mostly, however, there is emptiness and construction. Intensely saturated colors draw viewers into spaces in which they may be the only inhabitants around. Ski Dubai, Mall of the Emirates frames a highly illuminated, yet empty, commercial dining area against a wall of turquoise tinted windows looking out onto an indoor ski slope where no one is frolicking in the manufactured snow. Air Fire Rescue Facility sandwiches the building in the distance as a small bump between the intense blue desert sky and the rich brown undeveloped earth, asking who would need to be rescued in this environment.
Even in urban areas, where the glimmer of lights within the frame creates an understanding of the presence of life behind the walls of the city, the emptiness of the streets is foreboding. The eerie glow emanating from a cloud of dust over the site of the World Trade Center against a very dimmed New York skyline in No Fly Zone, World Trade Center, New York, September 14, 2001 describes, in a moment, a space where something terrible has happened. The line of police motorcycles under the illuminated candy colored Los Angeles evening fog imply that a different form of chaos could happen at any second in DNC LAPD Bikes, Los Angeles, 2000.
Images are often framed without formal perfection and sometimes slightly out of focus, as if the threshold of tension is so great that waiting a moment more to formally compose and describe would be a moment too late. In Griffith Park Fire, Los Angeles, a slightly askew-silhouetted hillside is illuminated in red-orange intensity of fire that swallows the frame and perhaps will consume all of the foreground shadowy Los Angeles residential area in its path.
Within all of this large and complex emptiness, the work from Samaras’ newest series, The Edge of Twilight, forms a small bit of respite. Set off from the rest of the exhibition in a self-contained gallery, these smaller prints were shot on location in a lesbian retirement community in New Mexico. Again largely absent of any human form (with the exception of blurred hints of people through illuminated windows) these evening images deal with the same themes of exploration, community building, and emptiness. Shot from the street at night, the yellow-green glow of the streetlights illuminate the mobile home park. The streets are devoid of people, but their presence is everywhere: the empty golf carts, the garden sculpture and the illuminated chotchky-filled domestic interiors.
A small bumper sticker in the corner of the window in Edge of Twilight 6 reads, “Come out, come out wherever you are,” underscoring both the emptiness of the public space within the frame while playfully acknowledging the lesbian community, as do the subtle decorations of rainbow garden flags and rocks that appear quietly in the other photos. These women are on the cusp of life too, much like the landscapes of Dubai and Antarctica, creating a new form of community dealing with LGBT aging on the edge of civilization.
The single channel video works provide life in the exhibition. Almost as though time cannot exist in the extended single moment of an individual photo, the representation of life’s proper place is a medium that sustains duration. Any inhabitants struggle to endure the landscapes presented in the photos: a seal comes up for air and breathes intensively for a few minutes and then disappears below the surface of the frozen water, a worker fully suited for the arctic cold sleeps uneasily, and workers in Dubai struggle to not become part of the used and discarded landscape.
The video-works feel more casual than the photos, and perhaps in the end are less effective as individual works as well. Whereas the photos seem to linger and contemplate the reasons that humanity chooses to inhabit extreme spaces, the videos are more about simple survival – working, sleeping, breathing. For instance, in Magic Planet two men directly address the camera, and in the blended audio of their dialog with busy urban street noise, viewers hear them mention that there is “a lot of poverty” while working in Dubai. However, the flatness into which the work, workers and landscape blend together into a unified frame de-intensifies their struggle. The videos perhaps are best thought of as the asterisk that floats above the entire exhibition – “* remember that within all this emptiness, there is life, and it is still important”.
An almost flattened field of whiteness, a pack of snow that looks untouched, is revealed by its title: Buried Fifties Station. In this we see the multi-linear timeline of all the images, landscapes and the life that struggles, often unseen, within them. The new spaceport is both high tech development and tomorrows’ empty field. Meanwhile yesterday’s Los Vegas cannot compare in spectacle to today’s Dubai. Samaras challenges the viewer to look further into time through space. She does not spoon feed a prescribed narrative with a fixed beginning and end. Instead her work seems more like a non linear hypothetical multiverse, in which all pasts, presents and futures are always in existence, leaving the viewer to search for an understanding of their personal landscape, both within the exhibition and the world.