By Alfa · Oct 17, 2004 ·
  1. Alfa

    Jack Goldstein Under Water Sea Fantasy, Jeremy Shaw DMT at Presentation
    House Gallery Until October 24

    The entrance to DMT, Jeremy Shaw's eight-monitor DVD installation, is so
    dark that it is disorienting. It's even more disorienting coming out than
    going in--appropriate enough, given the psychic and perceptual dislocations
    that are represented here.

    Simultaneously broadcast from eye-level monitors in the installation's
    black-walled, low-ceilinged, octagonal room, eight young men and women
    (including the artist) trip on the synthetic hallucinogen DMT
    (dimethyltryptamine) while the unmoving video camera records their
    experiences. Eyes closed, eyelids fluttering, heads rolling back and forth,
    they undertake brief, ecstatic journeys into the beyond.

    Subtitles on each screen counterpose the subjects' post-trip attempts to
    describe their essentially nonverbal experiences. "I was sorta, like,, what's going on..." "It is like this buzzing
    is kind of in you..." "I don't even know how to describe it....Holy
    shit....It was all gummy worms and the most vibrant colours..." Sighs,
    groans, hyperventilation, and each subject's chosen background music
    contribute to the textured sound environment within this cocoon of altered
    perception and near-terminal inarticulateness.

    Shaw, aka March 21, is a fast-ascending Vancouver media artist and
    electronic musician with a standing interest in representing youth
    subcultures. Here, he has assumed the academically trendy model of
    artist-as-researcher, and his project suggests a pseudoclinical or
    mock-anthropological study of recreational drug use among a particular
    subgroup. (There's an implication of privilege: DMT is expensive; six of
    the eight subjects are white; all look preppily fresh-faced and well-groomed.)

    In the exhibition brochure, curator Helga Pakasaar describes DMT as the
    synthetic version of ayahuasca, which, "in its natural form, is used as a
    spiritual device by shamans in South America for coming of age rituals".
    Pakasaar's observations about the deep differences between the uses of
    ayahuasca and DMT are absolutely germane: although Shaw's subjects may
    experiment with the drug recreationally, they cannot duplicate its original
    cultural significance. In traditional tribal societies, as religious
    historian Mircea Eliade observed, initiation rituals employ the ecstatic
    trance to enact a symbolic journey of suffering, death, and resurrection.
    The journey is made in the com
    pany of a spirit guide, helper, or guardian
    and culminates in the entrance of the initiate into either adult society or
    the shamanic vocation.

    In Shaw's "study", there is no social or religious context to hook the
    experience onto, no supernatural animals and beings to coalesce as guides
    out of the trippers' formless hallucinations. Thus, the trivial analogies
    to, say, gummy worms, and the inability to meaningfully describe inchoate
    perception and sensation. The profane never transforms into the
    sacred--although one of Shaw's subjects, a woman who thrashes, howls, and
    drops out of view of the camera, later attempts to align her drug
    experience with a book she's read about ecstatic trances and visions.

    What DMT conveys is not only the inadequacy of verbal language but also a
    sad sense of disconnection from community and belief. Still, this woman
    brings off the work's best line: "You're on these Web sites and you're,
    like, wow, you make shitty art....You really can't distinguish between
    trend and archetype."

    Although it is presented here as a separate and distinct exhibition, Jack
    Goldstein's experimental film Under Water Sea Fantasy enters into an
    inevitable dialogue with Shaw's installation. With its brilliant and
    bleached-out colours, shifting forms, fluid movement, and otherworldly
    sounds, Goldstein's continuously looping, six-and-a-half minute film can
    itself be read as an ecstatic journey. Instead of the archetypal cycle of
    birth, death, and rebirth, however, we seem to be watching a vast,
    primordial round of creation, destruction, and oblivion, inspiring both awe
    and existential dread.

    Unfortunately, we're experiencing the film at a remove from its context,
    too--from Goldstein's life, times, and multidisciplinary career. During the
    1970s and '80s, he produced sound recordings, still photography,
    performances, and paintings as well as film. However, the local viewer
    can't draw immediate comparisons between the present film and his other
    works, nor place it within the ambit of his avant-garde themes and
    strategies. Goldstein was born in Montreal in 1945; his art education and
    tumultuous career took place in and near Los Angeles and New York, where he
    cycled in and out of acclaim, obscurity, and despair. Despite a recent
    revival, his work is infrequently shown in this country.

    Goldstein began Under Water Sea Fantasy in 1983, set it aside, and finally
    finished it in 2003, shortly before his death. Montaging and altering found
    footage of erupting volcanoes, underwater life, and a much-accelerated
    lunar eclipse, Goldstein gives a knowing nod to Hollywood and the notion of
    the spectacle. But he also, Pakasaar argues, employs a small scale and a
    gallery setting to explore the pictorial rather than theatrical aspects of
    his medium.

    Much more eloquently than Shaw's stoned subjects, Goldstein seems to be
    describing the ineffable, from primordial cataclysm to the oblivious void.
    Except for that weirdly concrete title, he does so without the obstacle or
    compromise of verbal language.

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