ArtsATL > Art+Design > Review: Wendy Given’s uncertain identity, Martha Whittington’s canaries in a coal mine

Review: Wendy Given’s uncertain identity, Martha Whittington’s canaries in a coal mine

Whittington, in performance, "Wash."
Wendy Given: "In Light of the Mistress’ Hart.", 2013. C-print,  
40 x 60 inches, edition 1 of 3.
Wendy Given’s “In Light of the Mistress’ Hart” (2013)

Wendy Given’s exhibition of photography at Whitespace and Martha Whittington’s adjacent installation in the Whitespec project space carry us from the heights of dreams dealing with life and death to the deepest parts of the sweaty mess of manual labor. Both are on view through October 12.

Given’s photo exhibition, “Claw Shine Gloam & Vesper,” bears a less than obvious title. It begins with a word that alludes to animal existence and moves on to conditions of light and time of day, using archaic words for the evening star and the moments of transition between dark and light.

The title of the still-life photo “The Hour Between Dog and Wolf” offers a further clue that moments of frighteningly uncertain identity form a major part of Given’s interests and intentions. In this case, a candle and two coyote skulls suggest an updating of 17th-century Dutch vanitas paintings, a theme repeated throughout Given’s newest body of work.

Vanitas is standard-issue art history, but other allusions in Given’s titles may require Web searches. Jungians or any of several different alternative-culture types will know that “Nigredo,” a dark photograph of a crow skull, refers to the darkening and decaying part of alchemical transformation. But very few will know “Baetylus,” a sacred stone, and in these days of the decline of classical mythology, not many will remember the “hamadryad” tree spirit in the title of Given’s photo “Drive the Hamadryad From the Wood,” showing a desiccated stump, though this would be one of many cases where the Web search would pay off: the phrase comes from Edgar Allan Poe’s “Sonnet to Science,” which mourns science’s expulsion of the gods from the material world.

Visually stunning though they are, the “Gaest” series of appropriated 19th-century photos is a bit mysterious. (“Gaest,” Given tells us, is an Old Nordic word from which both “guest” and “ghost” eventually stem.) Framed individually in oval mats, the pictures of a howling wolf, lunar and solar eclipses, black swan and apple tree (labeled “Axis Mundi”) all echo folkloric themes, but the intellectual and emotional impact depends on prior knowledge.

Wendy Given:  "Hidden Mother," 2012. C-print 40 x 40 inches edition 1 of 3
Given’s “Hidden Mother” (2012)

Lovers of fantasy, folk religions and visionary experiences will understand, but less mythologically attuned viewers will perceive nothing but vague vintage imagery. The large-scale photo “Moon Rabbit” is just a rabbit in a circle without knowledge of Asian mythology of the rabbit in the moon.

“Hidden Mother,” a picture of a skull reposing on a lap robe that looks at first glance like a sort of furry wall hanging, is unsettling and initially unintelligible. In 19th-century “hidden mother” photography, children were held still on their mothers’ laps during the long period required for an exposure, then the mother was cropped out of the picture. Given’s “Hidden Mother” presumably refers to the maternal role of nature, and to death as part of life. If this is a correct reading, it leads to the themes of the animal-skull photos in which alchemical transformation makes decay a way station toward transcendental rebirth.

The gleaming geometry of the hanging sculpture “Himmel” seems at variance with all these organic-mystical themes, even after we are told that it’s based on a type of Norwegian folk sculpture. On the other hand, tubes of metal and Pyrex glass suspended in the air might suggest the transcendent destiny implied in alchemy, and in the symbol of the World Tree that unites the decaying earth with the great lights of heaven. (The fact that the “Axis Mundi” here is an aging apple tree is a suggestive symbol all on its own, the story of Adam’s fall from innocence united with a mythic motif found on all the inhabited continents.)

We are left to create these overarching narratives on our own, however, just as many viewers are in their daily lives if they have grown skeptical of institutional religions. The more we already know about the motifs in this exhibition, and the more we like to make things up based on what we know, the more we will like Given’s work. If we lack the time, inclination, or background information to tell ourselves such encompassing stories, the work is more shiver-inducing than enlightening.

But perhaps being enlightening is not the point. Perhaps Given is engaged in what Jungian psychologist James Hillman called “endarkening”: making the seemingly familiar object or living creature into the strange entity that in fact it is.

Canaries in Martha Whittington's installation. "Used  Air."
Canaries in Martha Whittington’s installation “Used

Martha Whittington’s “Used Air” is an evocation of coal mining past and present, for no matter how much conditions may have improved in much of North America and Europe, coal mines in large parts of the world remain horrifyingly oppressive.

Whittington abstracts the working man’s experience of yesterday and today by offering a wall of mechanical canaries from which visitors must select one and keep it wound up and chirping throughout their visit to the adjacent “mine.” (Canaries were once used to warn of toxic gases or dangerously low levels of oxygen in coal mines, because the birds would die before the miners did.)

The doorway to the mine-gallery has been artificially narrowed and lowered by the addition of graphite-coated wooden beams, requiring visitors to crouch to enter. The environment within is appropriately claustrophobic, with further wooden beams set at angles that shrink the available floor space.

Visitors are asked to take a metal disc that symbolizes the company coinage in which miners were once paid (cashable only at the company store). Graphite-coated wooden blocks carved like faceted jewels line the walls to symbolize seams of coal. If visitors stay too long, an attendant rings a bell to indicate they must leave the mine.

Trying to navigate beneath the beams while keeping the canary chirping is a sufficiently daunting experience to give some emotional heft to “Used Air.” But it takes a considerable amount of verbal explanation to make complete sense of what the various symbolic objects have to do with actual mining conditions. The symbols themselves do not convey information about the life of coal miners, and most of them don’t arouse a sense of empathy, either. The gritty reality has been turned into no more than multitasking in cramped conditions.

Whittington, in performance, "Wash."
Whittington, in performance, in “Wash.”

“Wash,” an artist’s book documenting a performance, provides the unmediated experience of misery that is obliquely symbolized in the rest of the exhibition. Whittington covered her face with charcoal and scrubbed at it without soap, in a painful exercise that reproduced a scene familiar from Depression-era documentary photography.

Rubbing our faces (as it were) in the real world in this way may be a more effective means of communicating the experience of producing the stuff of industrial society than the oblique metaphors that nearly collide with one another in Whittington’s installation.

Whittington will perform “Wash” at the gallery on Sunday, October 6, from 4 to 6 p.m.

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