Review: “Tropic of Gemini” proves to be a guided meditation that fully embraces life’s imperfections

Photograph by Stephanie Dowda.
Photograph by Stephanie Dowda.

The tropics are imaginary lines that circle the globe, signifying the northernmost and southernmost points where the sun can be seen directly overhead. The Tropic of Gemini too is a fictional place, created by artist Kirstin Mitchell, from which a journey begins and ends. Over the course of three hours, a walking meditation invites us to go without leaving and explore a captured paradise with Mitchell as our guide.

Projected on the back wall of the Atlanta Contemporary lecture hall, the video revealed a terrain of typical paradise — wind blown palm trees lining a secluded beach, a distant wave break or a perfectly centered dock jetting into a crystalline blue sea. These scenes are looped and accompanied by John Luther Adams’ 2014 Pulitzer Prize winning arrangement, Become Ocean. Though Adams’ dark, droning and foreboding piece has an intended weight from the threat of rising water levels, Mitchell has a sardonic way of transforming this pessimistic mood into something humorous. The longer you watch her elongated form walk on the pink treadmill, quiet scenes of paradise rolling behind her, the more you notice the comedy of the scene. The power of her small gestures — the crack of a smile that glows on her face, the sudden jogger that appears in the video racing along the sand or the way the audience becomes transfixed by the body walking on treadmill, serves as a reminder that it’s possible to find comfort in the imperfections of our lives.

Photograph by Stephanie Dowda.
Photograph by Stephanie Dowda.

The video is at its best and most daring when the camera wobbles from inside a small engine plane at take-off, then pans to an aerial shot where the evidence of the tropical place becomes smaller and smaller. The camera angle rises and becomes blown out from sunlight in a clear blue sky. The cut is barely noticeable, but suddenly the perspective is from the deck of a small boat, thrashing in waves of the sea. This edit to the video adds to the confusion of time, distance and journey that Mitchell’s piece seems to revolve. This part of the video adds to the stupefying question: How did we get here anyway? This kind of attention to the transitions between paradisal scenes would have brought even more transfixing quality to the performance.

After Mitchell’s performance, I immediately consulted Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust: A History of Walking. Having read this book in late 2015, it was fresh on my mind. Solnit writes in regards to religious pilgrimage, “To travel without arriving would be as incomplete as to arrive without having traveled. To walk there is to earn it, through laboriousness and through the transformation that comes during a journey.” I think of walking meditation — contemplation in action and revelation in motion. The two seemingly at odds: Movement bringing internal stillness, have been tools for enlightenment, inner peace and tranquility for ages. The humor again emerges, the act of attaining enlightenment while conducting a walking meditation on a treadmill with landscapes contained in video is off-kilter. Mitchell aptly makes this naïve gesture central to her performance character while proving insight into human character is possible to observe in action.

The other juxtaposition Mitchell plays with is the duality of human nature, hinted to in the title. Gemini, the astrological sign of mutability; at one time independent and imaginative while equally devious and superficial. Tropic of Gemini approaches the abyss of human contradiction with sensitivity to the idea that complete understanding of ourselves is impossible to attain. Perhaps Mitchell suggests looking beyond attainment and into the persuasiveness of the journey.  

Photograph by Stephanie Dowda.
Photograph by Stephanie Dowda.

Tropic of Gemini was performed by Kirstin Mitchell on Thursday, March 17, 2016.

Presented by DASHBOARD at Atlanta Contemporary.

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