Storytime at the museum
The Aspen Times
A great storyteller is someone who puts the listener on solid ground. He gets the details right and true, creates a setting that feels real and visible, and fashions a plot that follows logic.
But a great storyteller is also a fabricator. He makes up imaginary worlds, shifts gears, interrupts the expected narrative lines and reveals things that exist not as we know them but only in his mind.
Not long before becoming a curator at the Aspen Art Museum in 2011, Jacob Proctor noticed an emerging trend in the visual arts. Artists, lots of them at once, seemed to be discovering an interest in storytelling. And Proctor, being Harvard-educated and established in the upper levels of the contemporary art world, saw that the artists he was aware of were interested not simply in telling stories but in examining the nature of narrative itself. Soon after arriving in Aspen, Proctor — who late last year became a curator and lecturer at the University of Chicago but remains an adjunct curator at the Aspen Art Museum — proposed a show built around the idea of storytelling. The idea was finally worked out in Trapping Lions in the Scottish Highlands, a group exhibition curated by Proctor that shows at the museum through Feb. 2.
“I was noticing a lot of new work being made that was picking up narration as a problem, as something that could be worked through,” Proctor said in late December during a trip to Aspen. “I was interested in works with complex narrative, or ambiguous narrative, where truth and fiction blended together in a way that never resolved or cohered into a neat package. I had a long list. This show could have been huge.”
As it is, the show is expansive, rounding up nine artists and featuring works in video, installation, photography and more. Proctor calculates that taking in the show properly — watching through all the videos and viewing the art — would take an hour and 40 minutes, or roughly the running time of a regular movie. That specific length wasn’t intended by Proctor, but it provides a nice tie-in: Trapping Lions in the Scottish Highlands takes its name from master storyteller Alfred Hitchcock’s explanation of the MacGuffin — a literary device that draws a lot of the listener’s attention but in the end remains unexplained. (As Hitchcock tells it, the MacGuffin originated with a story of two men on a train. One asks about a piece of baggage. The other tells him it’s a MacGuffin. “What’s a MacGuffin?” “It’s for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands.” Told that there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands, the second man responds, “Well, then that’s no MacGuffin.”)
Proctor advises that visitors to the exhibition come not with the expectation of being entertained by stories but in the role of a stock character in a story — the detective.
“You’re looking for clues, following clues, making deductions,” Proctor said. “You’re building a story in your head and testing it against your own reality: Does this ring true? There’s memory, truth. How do we know what we think we know? And can you document something that doesn’t exist? What would that look like?”
* * * *
The exhibition begins with a few cinematic flourishes to set the mood: Matthew Brannon’s black-and-white movie poster listing a slate of noir films and then a door that mimics both a movie advertisement and the door to a production office.
Through the door is another scene-setter, also by Brannon — a silkscreen, “Frame of Reference,” that acts like a guide to an indie bookstore, with arrows pointing left and right to the different sections.
“It tells you you can go this way or that way, choose your own adventure,” Proctor said, adding that Brannon has written a story set in a campus bookstore and that Proctor himself worked in a used bookstore in a college town.
A 30-minute video by Kerry Tribe is chockfull of movie references. The title “There Will Be _____” takes off on Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2007 film “There Will Be Blood,” and the video flashes occasionally to a bowling alley, a setting used for a prominent scene in Anderson’s movie. Tribe’s piece is set in Greystone Mansion, a California location used often by film directors; the sound in “There Will Be ____” is compiled from those films. The story Tribe tells is fractured, but its elements will ring loud with any fan of film noir: shadowy lighting, illicit romance, hushed dialogue, blood and a gun. It seems to pose questions about the film-viewing experience: How much of it is about what we are actually seeing, and how much of it is about the movie memories we have stored up?
Another video is John Smith’s visually distinctive “The Black Tower.” The audio elements — voice-over, birds chirping — are soothing, which makes the narrative, of a hospital building that seems to have appeared out of nowhere, only more mysterious.
Gerard Byrne’s segment of the exhibition, featuring a film and photographs, looks at the great icon of slippery stories, the Loch Ness monster. The several series of photographs form narratives of their own. They all are arranged in geometric fashion and trace progressions from white to black, light to dark and remote to close-up. The nine-minute black-and-white film is a collection of pieces that speculate on what exactly it is people have seen in Loch Ness. (The best part of the piece might be the film threading the projector — loud and nostalgic and only slightly familiar.)
“Blackmail,” an installation by Mac Adams, seems a bit too obvious — a dining table that has been the scene of a crime, with an overturned chair, a gun and photos of people in romantic positions strewn about.
More intriguing and unsettling is “Shortly After Breakfast She Received the News,” by Alejandro Cesarco. The video is simple, an image of a newspaper and a magazine on a surface with a few crumbs. But there are tiny blips in the grain of the video that, combined with the title, engage the viewer to question the nature of things.
“You can tell time is passing because he’s using film; you see subtle shifts,” Proctor said. “Everything else happens in the mind of the viewer: Where did ‘She’ go? What is the news? It becomes all about the processes going on in the viewer’s head.”
A complex work by Katarina Burin also is meant to warp the viewer’s grasp on what is real. The installation invents a fictitious female designer, Petra Andrejova-Molnar, who made her mark in Eastern Europe in the early 20th century but has been forgotten over time, and shows examples of her buildings, furniture and graphic work.
“It’s a historical hall-of-mirrors effect,” Proctor said. “What’s truthful, what’s not, what’s invented — how do we distinguish between these things? This character didn’t really exist, but it’s almost as if she could have. Or should have. It’s restoring a past that never was.”
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