Curated by Kirstin Mitchell, the seven-artist exhibition Ego Te Absolvo is the inaugural exhibition (through December 11) at Eyedrum Art & Music Gallery’s new space on Ralph David Abernathy Boulevard. (Visitors are required to show proof of vaccination and wear masks.) Eyedrum has been experimental from the first, but more often in a spectacular or downright rowdy mode. This quiet video installation in a mostly empty gallery, described by Mitchell as “a show about tenderness, presence, healing, and the parasympathetic nervous system,” comes as a genuine surprise.
Its contemplative mood is, however, a reminder that although Mitchell initially became known for a focus on the body in her alternate performance identity as Kiki Blood, she has always approached the body as a vehicle of the often wounded spirit, and language as an intermediary between the two. Her vocabulary for discussing the interconnections has grown continually more subtle.
Viewers from a Catholic background will know “ego te absolvo” as the traditional phrase with which a priest declares that a penitent is hereby freed from the burden and the consequences of sin. As is usual in Mitchell’s practice, she has taken the etymology of the first and last words and wrung maximum meaning from them. Although she doesn’t put it in these terms, it may be that it is the ego itself that is the anxious burden from which the essential you needs to be set free, whether the “you” is the viewer or the creator of the artwork that is being viewed.
Accordingly, “you,” the viewer, may feel unexpectedly challenged by the strangely charged minimalism of the gallery space in which Ego Te Absolvo is enacted. It very quickly becomes apparent that the compelling drone of a soundtrack accompanies one of the two large video projections that dominate the left and right walls, or perhaps a third video projected on part of the far wall. It takes a minute longer to realize that other videos are playing throughout the room, mostly on very small screens.
The smaller images, showing single individuals involved in various actions, represent the “ego” half of the show, specifically presenting the artist’s ego since the artist is the only human being shown in each video. The larger projections, in which the action onscreen involves no human beings whatsoever, is the half in which viewers confront and come to terms with their own ego as they are surrounded by quietly engaging scenes that are intended to induce calm, but may in fact have a quite different effect for the sufficiently distracted.
Of course, none of this intention is apparent to an unsuspecting viewer, who is likely to wander the only semi-darkened room, looking at Tommy Nease’s painful ascent as a wildland firefighter climbing a burned-over slope in “Sisyphus #1” or Maia Evarista Charlotte Ibar joyously moving among a placid herd of cattle in “We Are Here Now,” or Meredith Kooi meditating or engaging in active movement in the wilderness surroundings of “to be held in the valley of mountains: desert compilation.”
Even when the viewer is focused on these video performances in which the artist is the sole actor, it is impossible to exclude from consciousness Linda Beecroft’s mesmerizing soundtracks for “Ecological Succession” and “The Spiral Ambience.” On looking away from the small screens, the viewer is immediately drawn to, say, the large-scale images of flames in Thiago Rocha Pitta’s “Prototide,” or the images of nature in Beecroft’s videos. The action in both sets of videos, while continuous, is deliberately slow but fascinating rather than boredom-inducing. The goal is to encourage a meditative state through contemplation of the overall composition, which involves seven different videos in which the rhythm is far more slow-paced and more minimal than the vast majority of everyday actions.
Bjorn Veno’s “Action Rowing 002,” which shows only the unmoving prow of a rowboat while the quality of light changes almost imperceptibly in the immobile water and landscape ahead of it, is a less immersive experience that requires the viewer to focus attention on a scene in which nothing obvious is happening. Again, the point is to alter the pace of perception.
At the other end of the wall on which Veno’s video is projected, Shana Robbins’ installation “Welcome” features a curtain with a design that seems to consist only of imagery of flowers and butterflies until images of the interspersed eyes of animals become apparent. Behind the curtain is a space containing literal elements of the natural world along with a meditation cushion.
And that’s it. The rhythm of action and contemplation in the overall combination of these artworks can be unsettling as well as calming. Whether the ego is set aside, i.e. “ab-solved,” or heightened in its tension and inattentive perception depends on the “you” who is visiting and viewing.
You get what you are ultimately willing to get, and while Mitchell aimed for (in her words) “a sanctuary to visitors to collectively find new ways to integrate,” this more potentially disturbing space for viewers’ depth experience may achieve her goals on a deeper level than producing simple tranquility would.
In a somewhat different register of the emotional spectrum, as part of ELEVATE on Halloween weekend, Eyedrum is hosting a three-day event, Sensuary, that complements and/or contrasts with Ego Te Absolvo. October 29 features an outdoor dance party with live music performance by Gage Gilmore and video projection by spiritualist Alberto Roman, 7-10 p.m.; October 30, 7-10 p.m., improvisation by film score composer Tom Heil on grand piano and Deisha Oliver on cello; and October 31, 2-5 p.m., a “playful and soothing sound meditation to calm the central nervous system followed by a spiritual outdoor music experience with Alberto Roman and friends,” a description so eloquent it is deserving of direct quotation.
Dr. Jerry Cullum’s reviews and essays have appeared in Art Papers magazine, Raw Vision, Art in America, ARTnews, International Journal of African-American Art and many other popular and scholarly journals. In 2020 he was awarded the Rabkin Prize for his outstanding contribution to arts journalism.