Turning and turning: thoughts on Donna Szőke’s Parlamonium

I am one of those odd art critics (oxymoron, I know) whom likes to visit artworks and exhibitions repeatedly, if not for very extended periods, like repeatedly taking small bites of a larger meal.

Sometimes its how you can best enjoy something, by delaying your gratification. Sometimes its the only way to get it all down without it being rejected, and your body expelling it in protest.

Perhaps this is attributable to how, when I lived in Saskatoon the Mendel Art Gallery was (literally) across the field from my apartment. Thus I could visit often and repeatedly, and many of the shows that I reviewed there in my time in that community demanded this rigorous, experiential examination.

This has often led to interesting insights: I’ve joked that I spent so much time with the Eli Bornstein retrospective there as I’ve NEVER understood the interest or obsession with his work by a number of proponents of zombie formalism or karaoke modernism or just regionalist xenophobic pandering. Amusingly, I came away from that show with a sense of its beauty I’d not expected, even more rich as it was a surprise. And some of the gallery staff hinted I might make myself useful as I was there so often, too.

Another benefit is that exhibitions, and art works, don’t say the same things to me (or anyone, I think, who looks critically) on every visit. I’m unsure if this is simply the fluidity of criticism, like the fluidity of meaning in art making, or if its also something that goes back to a conversation I had with one of the finer art critics I know, Earl Miller. In that (slightly inebriated) conversation, we talked about how art critics can change their mind, or modify their ideas, over time. So, when I’ve gone to see Donna Szőke ‘s work at the VISA Gallery in the Marilyn I. Walker school, I’ll admit that most of my attention has been given to Parlamonium. I’m not dismissing the other two works in the space, but they’re not the focus, for me.

This might be due to the way it dominates the space, with its dynamic motions and how its a responsive piece you can influence. I would also credit the conversation I had with Donna, on my sporadic radio show The A Word, which was very focused on Parlamonium. And, something that occurred to me as a repeat visitor, was that the work perhaps best, for me, encapsulates an answer to the question Szőke poses in a work in that same space (Stuff vs. Ideas). That’s a video projection at the opposite end of the gallery, a textual discourse on art and objects, ideas and stuff, the experience of art through time and space – choosing to stand in the realm of new media, for that last point – that I initially dismissed as too didactic, too much of the “teacher” and not the “artist.”

But, then I chose to “read” it – forgive my pun – as an adjunct to Parlamonium. Perhaps even an artist statement, for Parlamonium. I also like to think of it as a philosophical “argument” for how to interact with Parlamonium.

But first, allow me an equally didactic response to Art vs. Stuff: Art is never, ever, been about the object. Its always been about an ideal, an external, perhaps existential, perhaps privileged, concern.

This has manifested in oft contradictory yet complimentary manners. Art’s been a Platonic pursuit of the absolute truth (insert your favourite High Renaissance artist here, or jump half a millennia ahead to my favourite painter, Ad Reinhardt and his black on black works, all “painting is painting is painting is painting” or his misunderstand “art is art and everything else is everything else”). Sometimes its a declaration of “Genius”  (insert Michelangelo, in one form, or Pollock, where the act is all, ignoring the high art object, for another). Sometimes its “TRUTH”, which often entails a good swift kick in the groin to those whom richly deserve it (Duchamps, Holzer, Wieland or Yuxweluptin. I like the pair that bracket that, as Duchamps’ play on “stuff” with his urinal, or that Yuxweluptin’s works are often about who “owns” the land, offer a nuance to Art vs. Stuff…)

Art is rarely what we see – or experience – within the physical realm. It’s all about ideas, when done well, or even when done poorly…(especially, if I think of a show like this).

Enough esoteric discourse, for now.

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As you enter the dark space, pulling back a curtain to do so (there are several works outside the gallery proper. I already mentioned my subjective focus on Parlamonium, but this isn’t dismissive of these outer works. It’s just my subjectivity), your eyes are initially useless. As you move cautiously inwards, the flash of moving, intense green to your left is there and gone. This is appropriate to the scurrying mice of Invisible Histories. Depending on your timing, you may have the indirect glow of Stuff vs. Ideas at your back; but the motion of Parlamonium will pull you forward anyway, in the dark reds and splash of white.
And I can’t help but interpret the raising of your hands to clap loudly, to increase the speed of the figure projected on the hanging black sphere as a devotional act, like giving praise in a church – or a rock concert, as those are our contemporary sites of devotion.

But my thoughts often take me to darker places, and as I watch the “puppet” performer “turn and turn in a widening gyre”, I already know that “the centre cannot hold and mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” I like “mere” here as the ideas – whether edifying or elegic – are all fleeting. The ideas are as lost as a gallery goer trying to find their way in the dark, as lost as the higher ideals that passed or failed or simply were done (old Cold War, new Cold war, history repeats in a circular whirl) that left us with radioactive mice like in Histories. This reminds me of Uranium City….

Before we go further, let me dispel any confusion that my critical words may inspire, and say that I don’t dislike the work here at all: the opposite, in fact. It bothers me, but I often think that’s the role of art….after all, Szőke is an heir (or within the historical chain) to Arthur Danto, and what is art, and how it elevates or demeans our reality is truly the debate of Stuff vs.Idea – and I don’t just mean the illustration of that argument in the space. Her enjoyably grotesque piece Decoy at Rodman Hall, still has me contemplating Brillo Boxes and what we designate as Art, and more exactly, what we surely dismiss from that rare space….

The sporadic Marxist in me feels that our history of the “West” could be spoken off under that umbrella, or I might think that as I’d been reading about John McCrae, author of In Flanders’ Fields, and he was a proud member of the British Colonial forces in South Africa in the Boer War, which most historians will tell you is when the genteel mask of the “Ideas” of Empire and colonialism slipped irrevocably to show that it was all about “Stuff”….

Here’s Donna’s words on the piece, but you could also listen to our conversation on air here:

To create this work I videotaped a dervish dancer wearing a traditional costume. The video camera was positioned at the height of a theatre lighting grid so that the dancer was videotaped from overhead. The spotlight has been enhanced to appear as if it is the surface of the moon. This work is interactive: The video is projected onto a weather balloon which is installed high above the audience. Microphones embedded or hung above the viewers collect data about the volume of the crowd. This is fed into custom software that affects the playback of the video. Audible changes in the volume of the audience control the play back speed of the video, so that the dervish dances faster for a more boisterous crowd. …I have chosen to work with the image of a dancing dervish as it exemplifies the ancient Turkish roots embedded in my Mongolian-Hungarian culture. The correlation between the Mongolian Shamanism of the Hungarian steppes and the dervish dancer is clearly intertwined, where the worldview is centered around the movement of the heavens, and the dervish dance gestures originate in the universe itself. The dervish “spiritually listens” and translates what it hears into the circular movements of the planets.

There’s an emptiness to this work: an emptiness we’re invited to fill, and with my overtly subjective approach to art, I’m one who’s happy to do so, as I suspect most viewers will be….but in the end the emptiness is what prevails, and what remains. As “the dervish “spiritually listens” and translates what it hears into the circular movements” of the larger universe and world, I’m left wondering if we’re just hearing the echo of our own voices, bouncing back, saying nothing….