The compression of space and time in the digital age and its effect on the psyche is the theme of “On the Edge of Self,” Danielle Roney’s engaging and thoughtful multimedia exhibition at Kiang Gallery through June 4.
Globalization in its many manifestations has long occupied this Atlanta artist. “Genesis Trial” — her 2008 solo exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia, the culmination of her Working Artist Project grant — was a meditation on the hybrid identities and cultural mash-ups borne of migration and the Internet.
Roney, in collaboration with Jeff Conefry and with help from Penny Avilas, has taken the conversation in a new direction here. Although “Genesis Trial” reflected her own experience on different continents, the pieces were, for all their physicality (their large scale was part of the content as well as a response to MOCA GA’s space), abstract embodiments of her ideas — generalizations, if you will. This work speaks in more specific, intimate, human terms.
The quandary of “should I stay or should I go?” is at the core of the two-channel projection “On the Edge of Self,” the show’s somber centerpiece. The characters, a man and a woman, maintain troubled expressions as they mull over their decision in various settings: a train car, an empty room, a darkened, undefined space. The cold light, hard surfaces and austere palette contribute to the mood.
The protagonists appear in the same settings but never at the same time. The closest they come to being “together” is when they appear in adjoining frames. They never open their mouths to speak, but seem to be communicating with each other as they recite incantatory, sometimes paradoxical phrases: I’m here where you are and there where you’re not; there’s a door that you leave by entering.
Movement and references to travel are leitmotifs. The characters ride an escalator to and from a subway. A trains chugs through a shot of city skyline. The skyline becomes the circumference of a globe — or is it a lens? — revolving in the night sky. Just as the characters are suspended between the poles of their decision, this is travel with no arrival. Although Atlantans might recognize their skyline and the Peachtree Center MARTA station (which has its own relevance as a symbol of John Portman’s global empire), the spaces are essentially generic. The world of the video is nowhere and everywhere.
That’s just one of the binaries Roney sets up in the video: man and woman, going and staying, “real” photographic images and fictive ones. Her script and her artist statement suggest that she is trying to make the point that either/or is a false choice. You can be everywhere at once through what she calls “digital transcendence.”
Perhaps the generation that has grown up with all this technology doesn’t make the same differentiation between virtual and physical reality as mine. By my lights, however, being anywhere isn’t the same as transcendence, and communicating by Skype or any other technology that is supposed to bring one human closer to another isn’t the same as being there. In human relationships, bodies matter.
Though the video didn’t convince me of its thesis, it remains a compelling experience. Roney conveys the emotions that accompany a serious decision in an artful melding of the real, the imaginary and the abstract. (I love how she manipulates the escalator imagery.)
“Aleph” addresses in-betweenness in a different but equally compelling way. Existing somewhere between sculpture and image, it depicts plastic forms resembling train cars which appear, thanks to a mirror trick, to be tumbling into an infinite deep space. The image, contained in a white monitor-like frame suspended from the ceiling, is visible from both sides, so that when one walks around to view the piece, one is aware that the actual space for the image is only a few inches deep.
Despite the fact that the mind “knows” this is a perceptual trick, it feels the deep space, which makes walking around the object physically disorienting, a visceral embodiment of the fluid relationship between the virtual and physical.
Roney suggests the direction in which she is moving in “In Plain Site,” a study in the back gallery. A monitor embedded in a wall features images from the video, which are activated and altered, from both sides of the wall, by viewers’ hand and body movements. The piece represents the artist’s interest in finding new ways to involve viewers in a physical and symbolic experience of the digital community.
All in all, a very good show. Roney has developed a visual language that more than suits her subject. On one level, the medium is the message, if you will. She is clearly moving forward in conveying her thoughts not only in compelling forms but also in ways that touch the heart as well as the head.