Uncanny Looking

By Bart Gazzola

The Last Goodbye is surprisingly intimate for a wall-sized video projection in a darkened room: the figures on the wall, seemingly below “you” on the ground, look up and wave; “you’re” gazing down into people’s balconies and there is a voyeurism, a rapport between the viewer and the work (like a farewell, a leave taking, where you cut to the quick unpretentiously as you know you’ll soon be gone). Goodbye is a lingering piece: “you” seem to float above the ground in a manner that suggests a balloon more than a plane: less abrupt, more laconic – very dreamlike. Gunilla Josephson spoke of how dreams influence her work, and the surrealism of many of her pieces — she describes one work as a “pantomime about nothing” — is clear.

And that’s what’s unusual about Josephson’s (not quite retrospective, though encompassing the last five years, in preparation and production) exhibition at Rodman Hall Arts Centre; despite being very dependent on “new media”, it isn’t a cold or remote show. Houses and Whispers has some works that are more successful than others, but works like Goodbye or I Love You offer environments that enfold.

The respective “characters” engage and entice. Sometimes you get resolution, to Josephson’s “anti -narrative” vignettes. More often it’s a visceral experience that fits within stories that Josephson alludes to, or ones that we construct around her pieces. When I spoke with Amy Friend, about her exhibition that explored family myths and memories (Now and Then), she and Marcie Bronson (Rodman Hall’s acting Director and the curator whom shepherded Whispers to completion) spoke of how female members of a family are often the “keepers” of memory. But that’s more complicated in the works of Josephson: in the accompanying talk/tour of the show, Josephson spoke of the dissonance between family members “remembering” the same events and histories. The words of Margaret Atwood have relevance here: It’s a memento, and memento means something that helps you remember. She’d rather have a forgetto.

The Last Dinner is one such work that has this contradiction: a projection of a table (onto an actual table), filled with food and dishes and other “family dinner” detritus, but the physical table is tilted forward and the projection is violent, with objects slamming and sliding of their own accord, and the scene loud and grating and a bit unpleasant – like some family gatherings, at that locus of the dinner table, ground zero. The reddish tablecloth, the caustic green of the many objects on the table, that the table in the gallery space lurches up toward us, as though the violence is about to break, all make this the dominating piece in the lower gallery at Rodman Hall.

Josephson fills nearly the entire first floor, from the front room with chandeliers and fireplaces (Mother Tongue both affirms and breaks this domestic space) to the darkened alcoves where The Last Goodbye, and what may be the “best” work in the show, I Love You, call to gallery goers.

The looped ambiance of I Love You (2013-15) is engrossing and distancing. There are two figures, or perhaps one, with two heads and mouths (a metaphor for love, perhaps, overtly poetic in romantic words, grotesque when literal, as here), with seamlessly melded “busts” where the shoulders smoothly flow into their “partner’s” and the rosy flushness of their skin(s) make patterns and sigils on the bit of torso they share stand out even more. There are rough whitish heart shapes and others that look as much like scarification as anything else; love leaves these kinds of marks on everyone, whether visible to the eye or not.  The two heads (but one being?) hold eye contact unwaveringly, as they speak soothingly and invitingly, floating in the far upper corner of the room. They — it — can be observed without entering the space itself, as the darkness engulfs you, demanding an act of faith in penetrating this void. They are — it is  — the only illumination in the room, and you must trust that you won’t bang into a bench or that there is nothing in the void as you move closer to the warm faces, that rotate and repeat ceaselessly.

The voices are overlain by another that sings delicately and invitingly, and the half smiles and warmth of the disembodied heads call like sirens. I Love You enamours as it disturbs, but on every visit to Houses, this is the work that monopolizes my time. I am almost afraid to enter as it’s so flatly dark: but you walk towards the faces, the figure(s), making eye contact as they whisper their love to you. Though the figure(s) voice(s) is (are) hushed, the singing by Marian Lundin can be heard in spots throughout the outer gallery, calling you back.

Houses and Whispers is on display until December 31: this show is worth repeated visits, due to the sheer breadth of work (I’ve barely mentioned half the works on display), and how these stories interlock, both with each other and our own shared experiences of memory and “misremembrance.” [S]