In an astounding case of synchronicity, two installations have gone up this month at two nearby locations with the keyword “Zero” in their titles. The two projects are in many ways complementary, referencing stillness and silence, motion and presence, referring to eastern traditions in contemporary ways for a western audience.
Jessika Kenney’s Anchor Zero at the Frye draws from sacred music in the Islamic and Sufic traditions; Dylan Neuwirth’s Absolute Zero at Punch Gallery is categorically of the modern west, but its central (and sole) symbol refers to ancient philosophies of duality. Kenney’s work is part of an earnest and continuing musical practice, rooted in composition methods outside of the western tradition and the basic play of voice and silence, body and space, while Neuwirth starts from the despairing noise of the digital age, but gazes toward a primal stillness.
My understanding of both was enriched by contemplating them as explorations of duality and unity. In that spirit, let us consider each independently, and then together.
Jessika Kenney: Anchor Zero
Zero as a concept was first invented in India and eventually came to Europe via the Moors and the Arabic numeral system. Prior to that in Europe, it had an uncertain status and was even viewed as anathema by certain groups, notably the Pythagoreans. The concept of “nothingness” as “something” launched philosophical debates, resolving some paradoxes while creating others. Being neither positive nor negative, zero is that point of equilibrium and stillness, potential and emptiness.
In the musical system employed by Kenney, the zero position (first note) in a composition is the base note from which others spring, what might be called the tonic note in western composition. It is the foundation from which things flux and to which they typically return, hence the title of the exhibition, Anchor Zero. In the layered compositions piped into the three front galleries at The Frye, this zero note (known as the Shahed in Arabic) is not fixed, thereby changing the relation of the passages to one another.
Kenney’s amelodic compositions thus can’t be appreciated for the elasticity of sound within one scale or mode, as is typical of western music. The sounds wander, stretch and pile up, providing an uncertain resting place—a meditative white noise from which one can pick out individual voices in a state of receptive concentration. That said, I can also understand why some people will find it off-putting. It is eccentric, not virtuosic by any recognizable standard, and in modeling the introspective self, Kenney opens herself to criticism of navel-gazing. Even if one enjoys it conceptually, it can be fatiguing.
The experience is not purely aural, but is completed by the visuals in the galleries: high contrast, monochrome projections of layered imagery of Kenney in natural and constructed landscapes. They lie along different axes, horizontal (Kenney walking along a wall) and forward (a shadow projecting into a woodland). They are composite, but flattened, exterior locations projected into the interior gallery space.
It is a powerful balance of dual natures—black and white, figure and landscape, inside and outside, individual and universe, self and other, intentional and accidental sound. It is worth noting that the museum setting itself primes the audience for such an experience in a way that a commercial or religious space cannot. Whatever one may say of institutional art’s place in the larger culture, such institutions afford a neutral space to whatever they display.
This is especially true of the Frye, which is free an open to the public. This lack of barriers at the Frye is always appreciated, but it is crucial in the case of Kenney’s work, whose discipline reduces sacred music to its basic elements, separating dogma and the attached aesthetic schema in this case, leaving the voice in an elemental form. That this is a compound human voice, the wordless product of breath and body, emphasizes the personal origin of sound that yet arrives at something more universal because it makes no statement but for its own existence. This is pristine play of self and other. As for me, Anchor Zero is in so many ways a tonic for an age of noise.
Dylan Neuwirth: Absolute Zero
In an age of noise and self-promotion, “told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” the pressure is on artists more than ever to say something important but not too brashly, to be successful but not sell out, to create a cultural glue but display individual talent. These maddening paradoxes may apply to anyone, but artists especially bear the brunt. And then comes the artist statement, that much (and rightly maligned) requirement of an age that also wants to have everything explained, like a user manual or a terms of service contract…which few will read anyways.
Dylan Neuwirth’s practice has played with the new vernacular of the Web and text messaging while also embracing the proliferation of images and the flippant narcissism of the age. In some ways, he seems to be defending the state of things while also promoting his own work, and criticism has followed. As if to goad the critics in advance, Neuwirth’s press release for Absolute Zero was a nonsensical word salad loaded with references to consumer fetishes and fears (vaping, IKEA, the escape from nowheresville). It ended with the melancholy lines: Don’t die on me bro. immortal just means now forever
His “artist statement,” meanwhile, has been circulated surreptitiously among a small circle of acquaintances, not posted publicly. This insider messaging may seem like an abdication of the public role of an artist, but this method is in a sense a statement itself. That is, controlling the context of the work for different audiences plays with the larger issue of what artists can hope to say in a media din, one that will inevitably color perception and which otherwise presents a world in turmoil, where constant change is extolled yet also feared—the basic dilemma of modernity that has yet to be resolved.
Some salient excerpts:
Even though all my past work has only been about right where I was at the time I was making it, as I look back unsatisfied, I realize maybe it was about nothing.
As the summer came to a close and the world started to rightly reveal itself…as the vastly skewed place it really is…all I did was question myself about intentions and effects. Who was I and what am I saying and what is the power of the artist to change themselves or their surroundings right now? What is art for? What’s the point?
What would I make that would have any meaning whatsoever as the kind of artist and person I am outside of an abstraction of something?
So this process of doubt led me to making a site as a kind of place. But it’s inaccessible. It doesn’t exist. It’s a simulacrum of an ideal. Because this, what is happening all around us, is killing us unless some stillness might fill us and this is in fact happening all around us. But it has to fill everyone I think to work. And it’s not.
Neuwirth also confesses the grief he has experienced as awareness of inequity and injustice has risen but without much hope for change. This experience of doubt in institutions, in the media and in our own ability to effect positive change—or even a moment of humble stillness—is reduced to an inaccessible space in Absolute Zero. Kenney’s exhibit shows that the meditative stillness Neuwirth longs for can be achieved—if it is enshrined by cultural forcess that are themselves frequently taken for granted or misunderstood.
In the online space created for Absolute Zero there is a video embedded within the image of a flatscreen television. The statement THERE IS A STILLNESS IN YOU // NOTHING LASTS FOREVER proceeds to a two minute clip showing the view from inside a plane as it descends over a suburb. The tiny lights of homes and streets flow quietly with the sound of the engines and the soft rumble of the plane touching ground. It ends with the central symbol of Absolute Zero, which is a sort of modified taijitu, commonly known as the yin-yang symbol of Taoism.
Neuwirth’s Taijitu (as I will call it) is a perfect circle whose halves are divided into nine semicircles and a void. As in the original taijitu, the two halves each have their own interior circle referencing its opposite (a series of concentric rings in the black half, an empty circle in the concentric arcs).
It is only this symbol in pure white that is visible in the installation at Punch Gallery. The door is locked, and the walls are black out. Stand back, and one can see one’s reflection within or alongside the symbol, and in one’s ears are the sounds of the city itself. The divide between inside and outside, light and dark is stark, and in the glass partition separating the two there is the ghostly vision of self. The interior space is inaccessible, but—like storefront installations in town—it is as a work perhaps more accessible because it is meant to be appreciated from the street; it does not require people to step into a commercial gallery space, which is a step that many are reluctant to take.
The symbol itself a visual koan that, for me exemplifies a modern and western notion of duality. And in that analysis, the two exhibitions—though they work independently—reveal balancing forces.
Zero Divided by Two is Still Zero
As stated above, Kenney’s practice arises from unifying mystical traditions and brings it forward for modern eyes and ears, while Neuwirth starts from the desolate fragmentation and begs for a return to oneness. Anchor Zero is that glow of oneness enshrined within our social mores; Absolute Zero is the dark alienation and knowledge of imbalance and cruelty. Both teeter on being self-absorbed, as they push the viewer toward their own introverted state, but I find both to be successful, in spite of where they stumble—namely with the text.
In the case of Neuwirth, my first reaction to the messaging around it is not one of sympathy, but to say, “Snap out of it!” Fortunately, Neuwirth kept his ennui out of the physical installation itself. One just happening upon the sculpture need only ponder it and have that experience of light and dark and stillness. Meanwhile, the video for Absolute Zero recalls to me that line from the opening of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, referring to the light of civilization on the edge of barbarism: “We live in the flicker—may it last as long as the old earth keeps rolling! But darkness was here yesterday.” It complements the installation and allows for readings like mine without hammering us over the head.
In the case of Kenney, I want to say, “Speak plainly.” As intentionally, despairingly incomprehensible as Neuwirth’s PR was, the literature attached to Anchor Zero is even less accessible. Art world obfuscation is rampant (again, those damn artist statements) and the general populace is duly suspicious of it. The scholarly aspects of Kenney’s work ought to be acknowledged and offered for deeper study by interested audiences, so some academic language is necessary. I am not asking for it to be dumbed down, only to not be so repulsively recondite and haughty, because it goes there. That’s not something we ought to expect from an exhibit that makes much ado about getting back to the basics of communication, nor from an institution that calls itself “the people’s museum.” I am all for scholarship, but this does not square and almost looks desperate. Like the rickety little chamber in a front gallery (not much worth mention, but also part of the exhibit), there is less there than meets the eye.
In both cases, I feel it is worth reminding everyone that the art, the artist and the perception of the art by a viewer exist independently. It’s a very basic aspect of art, one that can be grossly exploited in the marketing of it. May we think of art not as zero (a completely empty space where it is incumbent on the viewer to provide meaning) but rather that zero note, the tonic what inspires one’s thoughts and feelings to wander and pile up? In that vein, allow me to provide a point of contemplation regarding a divide in eastern and western thinking evident in these two works.
The Taoist taijitu’s halves imply a perpetual motion and cycling between opposites that are contained in the perfect circle. It represents the totality of things from which the binary flows. Equilibrium is reached in closed systems (a ripple in water eventually achieves stillness between oscillations of high and low), but these systems are also seeking equilibrium with other forces, and so on, all contained within a perfect unity.
In the west, the reverse is often perceived and presented in dialectic terms, where thesis and antithesis are resolved in synthesis. This unity of opposites is not an immanent origin, but rather a point of arrival, achieved through active reason. Philosophers of this school have codified this tendency in our culture, from the ivory towers to the streets.
This mode is inherently alienating, binary and immovable, posing self/nation/west as thesis and whatever opposes it as antithesis, rarther than admitting to the constant flow of influence between these forces. The same goes for our evolving concept of modernity, whose central concerns (the reconciliation of “progress” and “tradition,” for one) remain unanswered, though we have dubbed ourselves post-post-modern, and such.
I therefore find critical attempts to use the Taijitu in a western dialectic to be forced, sometimes laughable. Neuwirth has, to my mind, created a perfect western variation, more honest to our dialectic mode. It is instantly recognizable, but its stark divides better indicate the more occidental, static binary that yet resolves into a unity. A ripple (as cited above) is itself a symbol of yin and yang at play, moving toward an essential stillness. The balance in Neuwirth’s symbol is between a ripple and stillness, taiji and wuji (nothingness)—to allow myself a simplified appropriation of my own.
Nothing in his statement or the supplemental materials indicates that these concepts were part of his process, but this was the contemplation that followed for me. The despairing noise and haste that more evidently inspired the work follows from the yet unreconciled forces one may see in the symbol, and in presenting it in just this way, Absolute Zero indeed may achieve through its contemplation that desired moment of stillness.
Viewed from the exterior, Absolute Zero is satisfying in its semiotic way, but intentionally withdrawn and cold. Anchor Zero (I end where I begin) is the somatic response to the same underlying alienation, noise and haste. Interior, bodily and warm, it is an invitation to experience the boundaries of the body as the root of communication, not the communication itself—the gaps that are physical and personal, not mental and cultural.
The two exhibits succeed on their own terms, but I urge all to see both, and soon.
Absolute Zero is on display at Punch Gallery (119 Prefontaine Pl) through January 1. Anchor Zero is on display at The Frye Art Museum (704 Terry Ave) through February 1.