In 2011 Steve Roden traveled to Germany to study curious marks that Walter Benjamin made in his (many and voluminous) notebooks. In another part of that year the artist bought at auction, perhaps on Ebay, a sealed box from the estate of Martha Graham. Concurrently, in the calendar year that just closed, Roden performed on his own each day the score of John Cage’s seminal work 4’33”. Currently at LACE the artist presents works that respond to these experiences.
The installation functions as one work of art and it includes several sculptural elements that carry films on them as well as three sound works and a three channel projection on two walls. Immersive and subtle, the various parts – sound, light, volume, mass and darkness – work together on the viewer to effect a meditative state. Within this calm, images of objects that have been held and loved by humans and sounds that might be murmurs inspire wonder.
I watch as the artist’s hand detects and with two fingers unrolls from inside a small seashell a note: “pure noguchi-graham”/a hand, the artist’s hand is a bit foreshortened – filmed from near the wrist on a changing monochrome background/a small carved wooden angel blows (softly, I think) on a pipe; turning to my left I see a typewritten page on a screen, “Bacchus on a billy goat, music from the casket.” My mind recalls childhood tunes, like “Ashes to ashes, we all fall down” or “A tisket, A tasket,” which my mother used to sing in a low, whisky voice. An olden days music box also appears on the screen with on top of its lid a stiff-armed man astride a goat. Walter Benjamin might have picked this up in some early 20th century village square – or so I like to imagine the philosopher at a flea market, pondering his Arcades project, searching for curious treasures – knowing as I do of this artist’s fascination with and mining of such markets in our present day.
Sound is coming from wall-mounted speakers, and these speakers become part of the films that are projected on them, which are films (and stills) of the artist’s hand making sounds – the same sounds that I hear. It might never be the same twice, this three part orchestra, as with the films the sound is looped separately yet together, single but not alone, in community with each other and with the rest of the room. A pineapple Buddha turns with a white record on a turntable – the artist’s hand, so carefully it touches its tools they almost seem like friends. Now they are doubled, the hands: on two screens out of three they caress an area out of sight behind a postcard cathedral. A postcard like one that Benjamin touched (and that Steve Roden then searched Ebay for a duplicate, only to find several near matches/misses); postcards were another thing the philosopher collected. Those hiding hands are making the sounds – no, the music – that I hear. A music of little things, a hymnal to consideration. (For the acts of considering by these hands are what stay with me after a decade and more of looking, a consideration that trusts the rightness of searching – quietly and determined – for what intuition might bring him, this artist.)
The white record (that is labeled “Shirley’s”) plays again on a second projection, this time without the Buddha, while the artist’ s hand works at knobs. Being a susceptible viewer, I feel each touch of the hands; and when the hands are in silhouette (recreating on paper as from another dimension curious, colorful marks that Benjamin used inexplicably in his notes to highlight words and phrases) they appear mysterious and powerful, and in the moment they could be the hands of a father I didn’t know, writing messages, instructions perhaps – inscrutable, yet direct and endlessly open to interpretation.
A piano chord joins with mechanical bubbling and a star fish spins like a roulette wheel. All of this is on three projections at the intersection of two perpendicular walls, the films resemble three large paintings, and as with the making of paintings, the artist has touched each object he has filmed – every surface bears if not his mark then his choice, even the film itself the artist’s hands held, and scrolled past his eyes. (I wonder how the works in this room will inform Steve Roden’s paintings? In fact the three projections look like his paintings, or perhaps like the information underneath his paintings. The films are literal in a way that the paintings are not, yet from these recognizable objects my subconscious or my intuition leads me to speculate odd connections in ways that I recognize from looking at his thickly painted abstract canvases.)
I have heard this work called hermetic and I disagree. Roden’s work is not closed off and there are no secrets here – there is a plainspoken way with objects and an honest raising of questions: I imagine that the questions begin with his methods of measuring and assigning, in my mind I give them words: “Can one translate words to colors?” and “Can sound be considered in lengths?” I think that before too long Roden’s quest deepens, and I pose another question: “By following a series of rules and applying them to the tools of art (and allowing the formulas to become habits and meditations) can I find meaning in inconsiderable things – things of little consequence which are not already invested with cultural signifiers?” By starting somewhere and then moving inward, can one find questions that inform one’s continuing journey?
Observers who find hermeticism in these films, as with his paintings and sculptures, might be more used to finding depth in art easily labelled for them, as though intelligence announces itself from the front door, rather than asking questions from the sidelines.
In the places where the projections strike the surface of a speaker it becomes pixelated and it stands out like a thumbnail view. I find underneath all the sound, as I spend more time in this room, a familiar Roden rhythm: hmmmmm, mmmh, a rising tone then dropping and repeating.
A simple glass button flashes in the open hand, then the hand closes. This is in a film that is projected on a screen at the entry, the film is visible from both sides of its translucent screen and its reversal makes me wonder: is there a right way up here?
Beyond the double screen, as you enter the gallery, is a tripartite tower on which are presented three chunky security monitors that each show a cathedral being built and rebuilt. (I see in one frame that the cathedral is in Siena.) Black and white squared columns are like insane Gothic cities – postcard cathedral parts are endlessly arranged and rearranged in film loops in their 5″ x 8″ monitors. They are claustrophobic and beautiful. (The cathedral never quite appears.) The three towers are a sculpture as much as they are plinths for films and are placed near the center of the room. This is the only dark object in a room of moving, dim light. Hmm, it is dim/dark at the center, this room, and light and shifting at the perimeter – this perimeter also serves as a horizon and the flickering lights can be stars, haha or the flicker of flames in shadow on cavern (casket?) walls.
A final monitor shows words and strikeouts being made with a pencil on paper – again by the artist’s hands. Walter Benjamin used curiously elaborate marks to excise words from his notes – each mark is different and there were hundreds of them. The artist’s hand draws a word that interprets Benjamin’s marks – such as “rain.” and “cosmos.” and descend.” (each word is closed with a full stop) and then those same hands cross out this term in the fashion described – as an example the word “lightning.” is struck out by a single vertical line from above as a bolt from an imaginary cloud. Each film clip is fewer than thirty seconds and the clips are separated by blackness.
Steve Roden has taken variously common and inscrutable objects and marks from two artists and thinkers who are present in his Modernist history (and yet who may not be obvious resources), and he has allowed these things to be open-ended, mysterious and charming – he has given them life. As a picker-up of odd bits I recognize that probably Martha Graham and Walter Benjamin selected and employed their objects and marks for much the same reasons.
Steve Roden, “shells, bells, steps and silences” is on view at LACE through September 16, 2012.
Post Script: I learned this evening (August 5, 2012) at an LA Film Forum screening of 23 years of Steve Roden films that the Film Forum along with UCLA will be screening 60 years of Austrian experimental cinema, beginning August 17 and running through September 22. The series will be split between the Billy Wilder Theater in Westwood and the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood. Let’s hear it for Austrian Action messiness and structuralist ruminations of film. Wheee! http://www.cinema.ucla.edu/events/2012-08-17/breaking-ground-60-years-austrian-experimental-cinema
I also have been reminded that Roden’s video exhibition at LACE is up and running through September 16. Now let’s hear it for the home team. Yay. http://welcometolace.org/exhibitions/view/steve-roden-shells-bells-steps-and-silences/
Visit LACE, visit LA Film Forum, make your summer vacation one of looking and listening. Easy parking for both! And nearby dining at Skooby’s Hot Dogs (yum, lemonade and crispy skins) and Musso and Frank Grill (yum, martinis and waiters with attitude). Do not hesitate…