A stop-motion that reappears along a river of time.
Certain art-viewing experiences stay with you over time. When they’re pleasant, they can remind you of how meaningful the act of looking can be. Recalling a work of art—like reliving any memory—strengthens its salience. It could be that a series of vital art experiences will one day form a tally of the particular arcs of my life.
I’m in a reflective mood, having just finished William Finnegan’s memoir, Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life. It’s about a life shaped by a passion, and later, a passion shaped by life, including loss and aging. Along with reading a remembrance of Oliver Sacks, and a book by the late positive psychologist Chris Peterson, my thoughts keep returning to what makes a life worth living.*
One work that I’ve continued to think about is Thomas Demand’s** Rain/Regen (2008). I saw it in 2010 in The Dissolve, the moving-image focused iteration of SITE Santa Fe’s biennial. It was my first visit to SITE and Santa Fe, on my first cross-country drive. We were moving from California to New York. Marking this life change with a road trip was wise. Those two weeks stand out in high relief.
I remember stepping out of Santa Fe’s picturesque, sun-baked adobe environs into the cinematic black box of the ICA. Floating screens and scrims primed me for psychologically-loaded spaces. Teresa Hak Kyung Cha’s notion that video paralleled the cinema of the mind seemed present.
Essentially, Demand makes stop-motion animations using paper constructions that are ever-increasing feats of production value. Rain/Regen is just what it sounds like—it’s an animated image of raindrops falling in a thin, frame-filling puddle. The fact that it’s constructed by hand, frame by frame, is astonishing. In this case, the paper might be bits of thin, clear plastic torn and stretched by hand. But like rain, all you see are streaks and a momentary splash upon impact. It’s gone in a split second. It happens fast, before your eye can catch up to it. It’s startlingly reminiscent of the overall peripheral sensation of rain. The perceptiveness of perception itself seems yet even more impressive. I know crediting this work with technical wow-factor sounds hollow. But the simplicity of the shot, indeed, the everydayness of the concept, paired with the ambition of animating it, forms a curious nexus.
I was moved by many works in that show, but Rain has stuck with me. Even the physics of a seemingly trivial drop of water exceeds the abilities of the human eye. We grasp only its motion, implosion, and disappearance.
*It’s been oddly reassuring that mentions of friends, colleagues, and acquaintances keep popping up in books I’m reading: Ted Purves in Tom Finklepearl’s What We Made, Marshall Trammel in Greg Sholette’s Dark Matter, and a familiar image by Hank Willis Thomas in Jeff Chang’s Who We Be. It’s probably attributable to two truths: the inevitability that a cohort would become the archivists and subjects of our eras, and, though I didn’t know it at the time, I was in the right places at the right times.
**It’s safe to assume that mega-artists like Thomas Demand rely heavily on studio staff for producing artworks, so a more fitting attribution would actually be “Thomas Demand Studio.” Of course sole authorship flows more freely through the systems of capitalism and law, but it’s nice to imagine a day that we drop these pretenses.