Real Shadows For Mere Bodies is the title of an exhibition of artworks by Stephanie Deumer and Arden Surdam. I’m not too familiar with Arden’s work, but from what I know about Stephanie, it sounds like she may have taken the lead on titling. All of Stephanie’s artworks have serious titles. By serious, I mean thoughtful, and also leading; while the content of the title of this show sets us up for what may be a kind of existential experience (in body, out of body, shadow body, etc. etc.), the poetics of its phrasing also claim an important stake on language and its place in art; namely, that it belongs, and will likely serve us as we approach this exhibition.
I can’t actually get past the title. What is a mere body? As a noun, mere means an expanse of standing water, like a lake or a pool; as an adjective, it means pure. It also means no more than, but it simultaneously means no less than. It’s a fascinating word. The formal poetics of the title work the magic, too; real/mere look very similar and are both monosyllabic; I consider them off-rhymes. Shadows/bodies are both polysyllabic, and are also arguably off-rhymes. And then, perhaps most beautifully, the mirroring of the title, accomplished with a preposition, which can be applied in several ways; for can be a “function word,” indicating a purpose, goal, perception, or desire; it can also have an autonomous, non-function word meaning: because of, in place of, in spite of.
Because Of, In Place Of, In Spite Of would also be a good title for this show; for it is predicated on the existence of another artist’s work (in this case Arden’s), and this predication is perhaps the most interesting, but also disconcerting, and even annoying, aspect of this show. (Here I will add that though it’s hard to tell from the documentation of the show, images of Arden’s work appear on, as in are printed directly on, Stephanie’s sculptures.) Is annoying a bad thing? I don’t really think so. Something that is annoying is often something that must be tolerated, because it is essential. For example, waiting in line can be annoying, but its an essential aspect of life that must be managed; or, the sound of bees buzzing can be annoying, but this is fundamentally beautiful and vital; its buzz is characteristic to its being. So, the buzz characteristic to Stephanie’s being is this thing where she literally uses, typically through photo or video, things that are in the space already, or that will be there at the time of the exhibition. What’s annoying about this is that Arden’s work must go up first, which must be annoying for both of them. But it also raises the question of temporality that i’m not convinced is meaningless: Arden’s work must always come first. Stephanie’s must always come second. Stephanie must always come around and eventually use, steal, borrow, echo, shadow, Arden’s work. And in this sense, someone’s work must occupy the place of the mere body, and someone’s must occupy the real shadow. It may not be a fixed position.
Stephanie’s fountain piece is clearly the centerpiece of the show. As you make your way into the gallery (a small-ish room, albeit with unusual architectural characteristics, like a sloped ceiling, and, I think, skylights?) it is basically the first thing you see. It is placed diagonally toward what I believe is the most trafficked entrance to the gallery (an exterior door all the way to the left), so that as you enter the actual exhibition space, as opposed to the entryway, you’re squared up with the thing. The thing is a working fountain that looks a lot like a mantle; I don’t know anything about making fountains, but presumably there are pipes inside, and a hose, or another pipe, that cycles the water through. It looks kind of like a window with a planter box. I don’t know what it’s constructed out of, but the outside may be wood or plastic; either way, the pipes are housed inside of this window/mantle structure, which is itself covered in faux-marble contact paper, or something of the sort. Water flows down from the top of the window over a piece of plexi, I think, and it certainly makes a nice, relaxing sound. Overall it looks like Stephanie knows how to make a fountain, and the faux-marble contact paper (which is grimy, and not pristine, and not mis-recognizable) is the only thing that gives away that this structure is meant to represent something fake, something obviously fake; and that this fakeness may be more important than the fountain’s fountain-ness, which is to produce a jet of water in some form.
This is not the whole artwork, although it could be. In fact, there is a 10-minute video projected onto the “screen” of the fountain, but from the back. This may explain the location of the fountain in the gallery (it seems the most logical, and the only practical) but it may not. I don’t really want to describe the video. I think the most important things about it are that women are in it, and only women; that these women are either faceless, or simply tropes of women, putting on makeup, or swimming up at us seductively and ethereally from a very blue pool. There are fish swimming upstream, or dying out of water; it’s hard to tell, and its disturbing. Also, there are a lot of meta-screen things happening, like a tablet screen the size of the fountain screen, and then scrolling through the screen, and maybe screens popping up and becoming other screens. There is a voiceover that accompanies the piece; another poetic thing, a story about reflection and love and recognition, which implies the myth of Narcissus very clearly, but never uses his name. A transcript of this voiceover is offered on paper in the gallery, which seems unusual and maybe odd, made odder by the fact that it is formatted for, and then cut to, a smaller paper size. Or perhaps it is useful to those that are hard of hearing.
I’m trying to understand if my reaction to the fountain video can be separated from my reaction the fountain, or from the other works in the show. The worst part of the video, which I am really leaving many interesting and worthy details out of, is that it makes the fountain into a prop; a mechanism for screening. It is a really, really clever way to screen a video, and I can’t stop thinking about that. When I say worst part of the video, what I mean is that the video is having a weird effect on the fountain—it’s almost revealing too much about the fountain—its revealing this really direct relationship between the insinuated story of Narcissus told in the voiceover, and the fact that when you watch the video, you’re also staring into a stream of water. And yet you can rarely see your reflection when you watch; you can only see it in those two minutes between video loops, which I happened to ruin by crassly yelling to Stephanie, “hey, is this thing gonna loop again??”
That only women appear in this video in various forms seems to be besides the point. That a video about, say, in a superficial sense, the narcissism of our culture should be directed at or performed through only female bodied people seems tragically unfair. Why Stephanie, why? I know a little bit about the myth of Narcissus. Its most important and most misunderstood attribute is that Narcissus doesn’t fall in love with himself; he falls in love with an untouchable, unknowable creature that has no materiality at all. It is a fundamental misrecognition; he doesn’t know it’s him. The tragedy here isn’t that he’s fallen in love with himself: it’s that he doesn’t recognize himself. Is that our problem? Is it that as women, we don’t recognize ourselves, since we’ve become immaterial, digital versions of ourselves? I don’t know. I mean, it is possible that Narcissus, in this artwork, represents a kind of male gaze, but it would be hard for me to argue that at this point. I struggle with the dualities represented in this artwork; the tropes of women in opposition to, I guess, the tropes of humankind? In the artwork, is Narcissus a man or a myth? A man, or a metaphor? A metaphor for man? For the male-bodied?
When we step away from the video, we encounter several other sculptures and images. Stephanie has built what I think of as very, very weird structures out of PVC; she mentioned to me that they are like “vanities,” which are, essentially, dressing tables. Sometimes they have mirrors affixed to them, or just sitting on them (like what I have at home, an antique desk that my grandmother used for letter-writing, that my mom used as a vanity, and that I gave to my wife as a dressing-table, which is what I call it). Stephanie’s vanities, made of PVC and paper, mimic the kind with the attached mirror; the outline is similar to her fountain, but with a much taller base. There is a photograph attached between what would be the “top” of the mirror (though again, this is made of PVC) and the front edge of the desk part (also made of PVC). This has the effect of looking somewhat crude, but also like a photographers sweep; the kind of thing you rig up to take photos of soft goods, or of anything, I guess. The images on these sweeps come from the gallery space itself; they are literally photos of different angles of the gallery, which include Arden’s prints; in this way, her work subsumes Arden’s by reproducing it; another kind of gesture towards Narcissus.
But of course, the myth is only partially complete. In fact, it is the myth of Echo and Narcissus, who were never meant to be, but seem perfectly at ease in Real Shadows For Mere Bodies. Echo was the beautiful nymph cursed by Zeus’s wife, Hera (because she was flirtatious, and talked too much, and covered for her slutty nymph-friends). Hera’s curse was simple; instead of initiating her own sentences, she could only speak when spoken to, and could only repeat back what was said to her. She fell in love with Narcissus but was rejected by him; soon after, he saw his reflection, and fell in love. Echo, with her curse, was unable to tell Narcissus that the love he sought was his own, and soon she wasted away. The only trace left of her was the sound of her voice, scattered among the mountains and caves of the countryside.
The idea of such a curse is a clever one; being confined to speak only what is spoken to you is so twisted. And yet this is what Stephanie’s work performs. It is not Narcissus that Real Shadows For Mere Bodies represents, but Echo; the manifestation of the work is confined to the space of the gallery, and as an artist, Stephanie is cursed only to repeat that space, back into her work; into her images; into her representations.
At this point I start to get it a little more, but its very complicated. Stephanie’s work, in this show and in general, proposes that as artists, we are stuck inside of some kind of self-centered (narcissistic?) repetition when it comes to art-making. And this show in particular is proposing that part of that loop is our woman-ness; it is the state that is reflected back to us, and that we reflect back, in turn.
It’s hard to know how to wrap this up—I like Arden’s prints; this show renders them banal while quietly allowing them to be exquisite. I think this is what they do best—reminding us of tradition, of composition, of semiotics, and other intriguing, pretty, docile things. They ground the show, and whisper, ever so faintly, that not all manifestations of art are clever, and not all of them are masquerading as something else. They represent one version of a way out of Echo’s curse.
It is very, very difficult to see this show as nine separate artworks, so I have answered my own question. I think it’s a perplexing show, with so many different materials and layers of ideas. It’s interesting that some things are so obvious, like a fountain and Narcissus, and some things are so obscure, like skeleton vanities made of PVC with photographer’s sweeps on them. It’s a sensory overload, if you’ll let it be, but also, these are structures you can see right through. I think these artworks should always be shown together, and I hope that when they are separated, they lose all meaning entirely. Like Echo and Narcissus.
Real Shadows For Mere Bodies is on view at College of the Canyons in Valencia, CA through October 12, 2017. For more information on these artists, please visit their websites: http://stephaniedeumer.com/ and http://www.ardensurdam.com.