In the early days of space exploration, theorists said that science comprehended the cosmos, but that “man himself is now the crucial mystery.” (That pre-feminist universal “man” shows that they understood humanity even less than they thought.) Today’s neurobiology may (perhaps) have made our species seem somewhat less mystery-laden, but the (contested) possibility of parallel universes has made the cosmos seem mysterious once again.
For her curatorial debut at MINT Gallery, Rebecca Hanna thus chose to pose this challenge to the artists of supra + natura: What, to them, is still on the margins of mystery?
By and large, the artists appear to believe that the greatest mystery today is history, or story itself as the structure that supports understanding. Some of them seek to construct their own stories about their family’s not-quite-revealed history; others try to break through the barriers to understand the past in general.
Mike Germon’s multi-image wall shrine goes the route of piling up our unthought-out sources of awe, dread, and puzzlement—from the galaxies to the head of a serpent, by way of everything from astronauts to amethyst crystals to a map of the South China Sea and the pithy predictions found on Chinese fortune cookies. On his installation’s bookshelf, the dry rationalism of Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man sits next to that other ancient classic of mythic quest, J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Return of the King.
Truett Dietz’s wall-filling collage Eleven Feet of Ambiguous Feelings also explores the problems of our post-digital, post-Internet mash-up. Here, the historic images of the 1960s show up alongside pictures of cats, bits of antiquity, not quite legible handwritten letters, and other varieties of visual and conceptual detritus that appear in our online universe without any means of evaluation or interpretation. We live, says Dietz, in the middle of a vast muddle in which we try to piece together a sensible story.
James O’Donnell brings this realization back home in Eternity and Grandma’s Refrigerator. The video of his opening-night performance gives meaning to the spectacle of an overturned refrigerator that contains both the muck of melted ice and a fragmentary family portrait. His family history, it turns out, has to be inferred from the uninterpretable scraps of the past littering his grandmother’s house, combined with her unreliable recollections of what they mean.
Caroline Worth, too, perceives that her family history has to be woven together from disparate narratives. She symbolizes this by a linked network of lines, created by individual threads emerging from spools arranged on the floor and wrapped around nails in the wall to form a tightly complicated set of connections. The visual metaphor, of course, fits a much larger range of relationships, and the specific reference to family has to be explained by the artist or the curator.
Likewise, Sarah Shipman’s use of myth and archaic symbolism is linked to her theme of family relationships only by external explanations. Her silk flag containing packets of hair, salt, gold leaf and dirt, or her latex snake overlaid with salt and glitter, evoke ancient archetypes, but not her personal stories. Her video of a Cleopatra who toys with a creek-side grid of inwardly-illuminated rubber ducks wrests emotional depth from a visual mystery that, absent her explanation, eludes any easy readings. (That elusiveness may well be the main point.)
Jennifer Morris’s To Keep Out What I Once Willingly Let In is an evocative cluster of small golden bells suspended from the ceiling on clear wire, with gold paint spattering the floor below them. The title and the image together lead us back to the mystery of humanity’s relationship to itself and to the universe, and are a potent reminder that what we consider “above nature” (supra natura) depends entirely on how we choose to define nature.