Artist: Deborah Stratman
The exhibition For the Time Being presents two films by American artist and filmmaker Deborah Stratman (b. 1967, Chicago). In her works — sculptures, photographs, drawings, sound works, and films — Stratman examines structures of power, control, collective memory, thought, and beliefs. Rather than presenting the artist’s latest films or works, the current exhibition focuses on two short films from 2021. These are linked in their exploration of border and transitional spaces and zones, with places and areas situated between land and water, between heaven and earth, but also between elements both present and absent. Both films reflect on fundamentally abstract aspects of perception — of space and time, even of being itself.
Stratman’s films seem documentary at first; her more recent films, however, also incorporate staged and re-enacted elements. Stratman’s semi-documentary practice is neither strictly conceptual nor didactic; it addresses the viewer in a more associative and polysemic manner. Her films repeatedly raise sets of questions or concerns; they are not narrative, but rather, in line with the complexity of interconnections between place/landscape, society and power, are oriented toward ambiguous readings as well as the active, semiotic processes of the viewer.
What is ostensibly real, its rules and causalities, is rendered seemingly impotent in the transitional and liminal zones of the two films presented, Laika and For the time being. Image and representation, the real and the filmic, but also the real and the imaginary, form reciprocal correspondences. Similar to early childhood perception, where drawing a clear line between imagination and reality is not yet possible, the so-called real does not form a counterpoint to the irrational, mystical, or metaphysical but serves instead as a correspondent, an equivalent.
Stratman’s films repeatedly emphasize an auditory dimension — sound and music — since the potential emotional impact of tone, sound, and music typically remains hidden for the recipient. Stratman’s focus on the acoustic not only stems from her interests in sound design and her teaching activities within this field, but can also be read against the background of her sculptural practice, the development of sonic landscapes and sound interventions, in which she explores public and thus also political dimension of auditory space. Her interests lie in decidedly everyday situations and conditions of perception; she directs the attention to auditory factors that condition perception — ones that escape immediate recognition and are thus particularly suitable for manipulation.
The short film Laika (2021) was created — in contrast to the artist’s typical working methods — for an existing soundtrack, or more specifically, music. Stratman developed the film at the invitation of composer Olivia Block for the release of the latter’s album Innocent Passage in the Territorial Sea (Room40). Compositionally and thematically, the film revolves around the myth-making machinery of Russian and American space programs, i.e. experiments undertaken in the name of progress. “Some forms we can only know by their shadow. In homage to the spirits of space test dogs, or any being we use in the name of progress,” explains Stratman in her dedication to the film. Stratman creates in Laika an homage to the “ghosts” of space test dogs, suitable representatives for all the other animals that have been and are used in the quest for progress. Even if the film does not seek to educate or moralize, it still leaves the viewer with a certain feeling of unease.
In Laika, Stratman repeatedly presents the Earth and space in a reciprocal relationship. The angles of view, i.e. who’s looking at and observing whom from where, change constantly throughout the film. The first scene opens with a tranquil, starry sky, quickly interrupted by two flying objects that soon morph into the superimposed pair of glowing eyes of a test dog staring at us. The following shot directs the viewer’s gaze — also here there’s an intense glare at times — toward a highly reflective tetrahedron positioned on a coast, perhaps an allusion to a fallen star, or, in a film-historical reference to J. Cocteau’s Orpheus, to the idea of a mirror as a door.
The short sequence that follows depicting an approaching sun, captured by a thermal-imaging camera, transitions into the most moving musical and visual part of the film. Fragments of a rocket are seen falling into the sea. The scene, however, is presented backwards and at a slower speed; at the same time the glissando of the choir and string instruments seemingly coalesce into a jarring wailing or screaming. Stratman shows the sequence in reverse while parachutes (seen above the individual fragments of the rocket) evolve into jellyfish-like creatures of alien provenance. These were, according to the artist, the first images that came to her mind while listening to Block’s music: a space capsule with a dog, played backwards, flying towards its own “origins.” Any causality seems here overly narrative, disempowered, even inverted.
Stratman specifically gives filmic space to the “ghosts” of the space test dogs, a space in which to be seen, but also a potential type of encounter. The dog, barking at us out of the silence of the film’s final scene, like at the beginning, is not moralizing but, the artist adds, is upset by man’s ideas regarding the hierarchy of beings and has probably wanted nothing to do with our species for quite some time.
The title of the second film, For the time being, which also serves as the title of the exhibition, can be read as a homage and video letter to the Land Art artist Nancy Holt. For the time being is based on Statman’s and Holt’s shared interest in salt lakes, vast barren landscapes, and an ontological consideration of the categories of space and — even more so — time. A majority of the footage was filmed on and around the Great Salt Lake in northern Utah in the US, at Mono Lake and Meteor Crater. The film’s title comes from a short text that Holt wrote for Robert Smithson in 1978: For the time being, in the interim, in the course of time, from day to day, from hour to hour, until, in due time, and in the fullness of time, time endures, goes on, remains, persists, lasts, goes by, elapses, passes, flows, rolls on, flies, slips, slides, and glides by.
Here as well landscape becomes — contrary to the documentary impression at the outset — an almost magical place, a place of art. There are clear, direct references to Holt’s work in the film, i.e. to the star formations of her sun tunnels. Explored are tranquil lakes and eruptive craters that ultimately come across less as actual places than presences that transcend time, ones that make aesthetically accessible their very temporal dimension, the interplay between their very being, duration, and becoming.
After an initial, dark film sequence depicting the vastness of a lake or sea, the image transitions into a documentary but also abstract, immersive landscape-scenario in which a man, occupying the center of the image, wades through knee-deep water, pulling a boat or raft. In reality, we’re on the northern half of the Great Salt Lake, very close to Smithson’s Spiral Jetty. Ropes mounted on the left and right sides of the raft form a clear geometric shape, again an allusion to the basic shape of the triangle often appearing in Stratman’s work, but certainly also an allusion to elementary, universal basic geometric shapes — in nature. The subsequent camera perspectives show a series of abstract star constellations, again in direct reference to Nancy Holt.
Stratman’s final three scenes of the film unfold in a semiotically polysemic manner, formulated as a question to the viewer: a panoramic plateau alludes, quite self-referentially, to the nature of filmmaking itself, indeed to the panoramic perspective and thus to that dispositf of the gaze, the history of which proceeds the film and to a certain extent even largely anticipated its desire to see a great deal, indeed everything, from a sovereign point of view. In reality, the shot was created in Winslow, Arizona. The particular telescope is located on a hill piled up by the impact of a comet, a “meteor crater” that then soon appears in a bluish tone, as a film within a film.
An orange triangular-shaped tent, which then appears lost on a coast, confronts the viewer as a kind of geometric marker of (and in) the landscape. The tent fluctuates between dwelling, landscape marking, and abstract, pictorial form. In reality it represents a safety device used on expeditions in emergencies when all other communication systems fail. In a similar way, Stratman highlights two other warning signs, a circle and a square on orange fabric. These forms, beyond their original function, i.e. when read visually, also become abstract, almost mystical signs. Perhaps they even form a discrete system of signs, a kind of Morse code that only Nancy Holt would be able to decipher.
The final shot shows the simple, yet poetic view of a wind sock. Once again, a measuring device whose form might have aroused Nancy Holt’s interest. Perhaps also a nod to the shape of the sun tunnels themselves? “So,” Statman explains, “if I try to capture what experience or force most aptly qualify what the 'present' is... I think about the wind. This ‘letter’ is for Nancy, but also the Time being. For the present and 50,000-year-old meteor impacts and our 4.3-billion-year-old planet.”
Text: David Komary
Translation: Erik Smith