Review: Public Domain’s meaning not apparent in “Apparent Horizon,” at Eyedrum

Video by Jim Demmers
Video by Jim Demmers
Video by Jim Demmers
Video by Jim Demmers

Apparent Horizon: Deep Time, Surveillance, and De/Reconstitution of the Human Subject, mashes the topics in the title and more in the three-artist collaborative Public Domain Inc.’s exhibition at Eyedrum through July 3.

The paradoxical physics of black holes, including whether such entities actually exist at all, is the titular starting point for this show. The depth of elapsed time (so-called Deep Time) in which seeming impossibilities come to be (including the birth of organized complexity out of a succession of random and accidental events) is another.

So, too, are surveillance as metaphor (humanity’s attempt at being an all-seeing eye not just for current events but all of physical history), the challenge to humanity’s self-definition by the new biology and the quest for artificial intelligence.

You won’t find these knotty issues explicated in this show. You may, however, find them entangled, or tied in even more knots. These transcendental tricksters have, over the course of four decades, often engaged in antics that could be regarded as pataphysical. (French trickster Alfred Jarry defined “pataphysics” as “the science of imaginary solutions.”)

Perhaps this whole enterprise is meant to be taken as an annoying statement/quip/question about the impossibility of imposing a conceptual grid on the unruly immensity of the universe, despite humanity’s efforts.

Whatever its purpose, the show presents work with a nature and purpose that is far from self-evident. To wit: a set of inkjet prints by Chea Prince that turns out to be blanched-out renditions of images now in the public domain; a matching set of color photographs that, if you forget to ask their origin, suggest nothing whatsoever; video projections of ink blots akin to Rorschach tests. In addition: an unnerving sculpture by Robert Cheatham that resembles some life form out of H. P. Lovecraft’s fiction about unimaginable entities (or maybe just an uncanny rock outcropping). Also, a video that likewise suggests science fiction but communicates nothing clearly. And that is only what’s in the front gallery.

The back gallery contains four videos accumulated or made by Jim Demmers: two presenting mountainous landscapes with dunes or drifts of sand or snow, one recording the teeming life of the world underwater and one surveying a ruined building.

Sculpture by Robert Cheatham
Sculpture by Robert Cheatham

Behind these is a set of empty shelves in front of an ink-stained wall. This is a poetic and elusively evocative array of stuff, the more so when we are told that the shelves represent a failed experiment. On opening night, melting blocks of ice at the top were meant to create ink paintings as the dripping water fell onto sheets of rice paper on a shelf below. Instead, the ink dribbled down the wall, forming a differently delightful tribute to the power of accident. If we needed a metaphor for the limits of knowledge and human capacity, this failure to bring about the intended result would be it.

The whole show pays homage to the impossibility of complete vision, no matter how comprehensive the theory and powerful the means of observation. We can influence the direction of nature’s immense processes, but we cannot fully control or even observe them. It is all, literally, beyond us.

I would like to think that this is Public Domain Inc.’s intended message, but their catalogue suggests otherwise. More accurately, it is only one message amid a multiplicity of messages, no one of which may be the intended meaning.

If you find oblique work intrinsically unattractive, then there is no point in your seeing this show. But it is good for you to know that it is there, even if it turns out to be, as you might think, a load of nonsense. It attempts more than it accomplishes, but grandiose failures are sometimes more valuable than timid successes.

The actual explanation for all this, or some misleadingly reasonable facsimile thereof, will probably not be presented at the “artistic talk” by Public Domain on June 20 at 7 p.m.

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