BY Michael Wilson in Reviews | 05 APR 04
Featured in
Issue 82

Jennifer Steinkamp

BY Michael Wilson in Reviews | 05 APR 04

Los Angeles-based artist Jennifer Steinkamp has routinely employed disorienting motion in her projected digital animations, sometimes to the extent of inducing violent seasickness in her audience (a reaction that she delights in). Her new installation Dervish (2004) is, as the title suggests, similarly restless. But while Steinkamp's previous works have tended to be on a well-nigh overbearing scale, playing with our all too easily deceived spatial perception by dematerializing the architecture of the gallery in spectacular displays of (predominantly abstract) light and colour, Dervish sees her in comparatively restrained mode. Utilising the full height of each of the gallery's walls but leaving her usual perceptual trickery aside, she also uses an immediately recognisable image, even if the way it behaves is rather peculiar.

Visitors to last year's Istanbul Biennial may remember Steinkamp's Eye Catching (2003). Projected onto the ancient stone walls of the gloomy Yerebatan Cistern, a sixth-century structure that served as a palace reservoir during Byzantine times, was a row of leafy trees that vibrated slightly at some unknown stimulus, its convulsions mirrored in the water below. Dervish employs the same motif, confronting visitors to a similarly darkened, though rather more recently built, gallery with the glowing computer-generated images of four trees. Facing each other across the unoccupied space, each of these proceeds gradually through the seasons, seen first blossoming, then in leaf, draped in autumnal crimson and eventually as pale, bare wood.

Less readily anticipated are the plants' distinctly uncharacteristic movements. As the upright trunk of each one rotates as if rooted in a turntable, its branches flail and spin like the tentacles of some exotic marine creature prodded by a inquisitive diver. Individual twigs, leaves and flowers seem to have taken on lives of their own, twisting and turning in an apparent bid for independence. The speed at which this happens varies from the relatively sedate to the truly frantic, and the effect is variously reminiscent of a snowstorm, an explosion and a shower of confetti, according to the time of year represented. The branches of one tree are given to sudden collective droops and surges, while another seems abandoned to a wayward spin cycle so rapid that its details are all but lost in a blur of red and gold.

Steinkamp has borrowed her work's title from the Mevlavi sect of Islam, whose priests, the dervishes, famously perform a whirling dance that symbolises the release of the soul from its earthly bonds and aspiration to the divine. It is a ritual that is at once governed by discipline and characterized by an escape from restraint, ceremonial and steeped in tradition but still joyously, viscerally anarchic. The dual action of the trees in Dervish - the simple, back-and-forth rotation of the trunk paired with the chaotic flux of the branches - neatly reflects the structure of this point of origin. It also, at a slight stretch, parallels the artist's interest in layering imagined spaces over real ones, and her emphasis on the part played by the viewer's physical presence in completing each project.

Steinkamp wears her influences on her sleeve. She frequently locates her artistic heritage in structuralist cinema, with its construction of the audience as continually active and intensely self-aware, and in the West Coast-based Light and Space artists of the 1960s such as James Turrell. She also acknowledges that her work has a strongly decorative aspect and, despite a working process based in the frequent use of Virtual Reality as a modelling tool, the transitional status it may turn out to have held. Interviewed by Rochelle Steiner in 2000, she stated that 'Anybody who is a pioneer doesn't necessarily know what they've got. Actually, I think in the 21st century, art will become more genetic or biological. I will be out of the loop.' Yet the timeless feel of Dervish suggests that she was being overly modest.

Like her exuberantly floral projection Jimmy Carter (2002), Dervish is as life-affirming as art should ever be - if we recognize that life is as much about thrashing and squirming as it is about the uncomplicated jump for joy. Other projects have seen Steinkamp commission musical soundtracks by the likes of Jimmy Johnson, Bryan Brown and the Grain Collective, but here she resists the temptation to set her images spinning to an audible beat. It is a sensible decision that pares down but intensifies the experience. Dervish leaves our ears (inner included) unmolested, lingering instead in the mind's eye.