Alien Scenic Views
The visionary artists Richard Selesnick and Nicholas Kahn have been collaborating on fantastical photo-novellas and sculptural installations since 1988. Their unique shared perspective stretches the imagination through arid panoramic space, and reveals that the beauty of life, whether human or alien, prevails in the harshest of conditions.
The pair constructs their sculptures using materials that are donated to them, infusing the work with an abnormal-haphazard quality that adds a real-life feel to these alien-scenic views.
Kahn & Selesnick are currently attempting to find a lost iceberg city last seen off of Lubeck in 1923 and shooting an Expedition to Mars for NASA.
Sara Falkner has known the artists since 2000, and like many of their friends, she has lent assistance to several of their projects on various levels. She recently had a conversation with the artists:
SF: What I find most compelling about your work over the years is its ability to create dreamlike realities which follow an internal logic that unpredictably mirrors, interrogates and disembowels different components of what we might call most correctly, dominator-culture consensus reality. Each of your projects uses multiple media to create a specific node in the space-time continuum that seamlessly weaves together "genuine" and "authentic" objects, photographic records and texts, along with your own inventions and detournements. I have witnessed many times over the years people begging you to "explain it" to them better, or parse out for them what is "real" and what "isn't" in a project, whilst you both hedge and dart as best you can. It seems to me that you want your audience to stop trying to cling to a clever but brittle mental-level cataloging of what is familiar and "true" and official institutionally-sponsored knowledge, and just open up to directly experience the expansiveness of the world that's there before them. It seems to me a mystical approach, very like what my own favorite teachers and guides have encouraged in us whenever on the brink of nonordinary reality which is after all not separate but inextricably embraided with ordinary reality--let go for a moment of concerning yourself with what you do and don't recognize and just let it wash over you awhile. It's not an anti-intellectual approach, but a call to skillfully move at will between realms, senses, and capacities of perception. At any rate, while Adrift on the Hourglass Sea is the name of your newest project, it also is to my mind a succinct description of the experience you seem to want to encourage for your viewers: cut the power, sever the docklines, and throw the clocks overboard!
I also enjoy that "The Hourglass Sea" was an early name for what is now known as Syrtis Major--as I understand it, it was the very first albedo feature ever viewed from Earth; in other words, the first documented change in contrast in light or dark and thereby an implied surface feature, visible on another planet. It was thought to be a sea or plain from its first documented sighting and mapping in 1659 until fairly recently, when the Mars Global Surveyor indicated that it actually seems to be a volcano; so, not water, but fire, not concave but convex. This topsy-turvy self-contradicting quality to what we collectively know and think we know at any point in time, with ruptures and reversals occurring quite regularly in cycles, is something that you seem to enjoy working with...
K/S: well, we find it very interesting that you mention throwing the clocks overboard - one of our first collaborative pieces at university (done with our friend Jon Taylor of Ryukyu Underground) involved dressing up in lederhosen and whiteface as clock bell strikers, marching into a room like automatons run amok, grabbing two clocks off the wall and hurling them out the window! The piece was called 'behold the human clock'.
Nicholas’ great-grandfather Lieberman had a clock and watch store in the narrow streets of the east end of London and held two patents for specialized alarm clock mechanisms; as a young man Nicholas was employed for a time transporting timepieces to be repaired at the workshop down an alley in "Bleeding Heart's Yard."
For us the question about what's real and what isn't is kind of a red herring, or maybe better yet, a MacGuffin. For instance, the iceberg in Eisbergfreistadt was most certainly a MacGuffin, something to catch the viewers’ attention and lead them towards the questions the project is asking, which as you quite rightly point out are generally to do with the non-linearity of time, and the nature of consensual reality or context. Our feeling is that the mind is a machine for creating and upholding context, and will generally do anything to uphold that facade, and the MacGuffin is the wrench in the works.
In this regard your discerning that we have an ambivalent relationship with intellectuality in regards to our work interests us. We have always seen the intellectual as a master context-builder, a constructer of cathedrals of the mind, whether it be in fields of criticism, science, philosophy, etc. one can certainly admire the beauty of these edifices, but really the clocks can go overboard at any moment. Historically this was the role of the fool, which is why we think we are so drawn to absurdism in our work. The sublime functions in much the same way, and so also tends to be a running theme for us.
But to return to clocks, we were also struck that you should mention Stephen Hawking. He points out that mathematically time can be treated as a spatial dimension, and that certain problems relating to time and quantum mechanics can be resolved by applying imaginary numbers to these dimensions to create imaginary time. He is quick to point out that these are not merely mathematical models:
"It turns out that a mathematical model involving imaginary time predicts not only effects we have already observed but also effects we have not been able to measure yet nevertheless believe in for other reasons. So what is real and what is imaginary? Is the distinction just in our minds?"
If we are talking about the space-time continuum, we think it is also interesting to leave the clocks behind and consider the spatial dimension. When we look back at the projects we've worked on, a very common theme is that they are set in times and places where contexts have generally been either destroyed or rebuilt or re-aligned. We think the traditional landscape for this contextual re-alignment has been the desert wilderness, whether one is talking about Moses' conversation with the burning bush, or the Apollo missions to the moon. This is where the sublime comes in - a key moment for us in the development of this project was a visit to the Tate Britain where we saw an exhibition called Art and the Sublime. The exhibition was a survey of apocalyptic 18th and 19th century British landscape painting relating to Edmund Burke's notion that "terror is in all cases whatsoever, either more openly or latently, the ruling principle of the sublime". A particular painting that struck us was The Poison Tree on the Island of Java by Francis Danby - the scene is distinctly Martian, and quite unsettling enough in and of itself, but a closer look reveals a dead body and numerous skeletons lying in the dark areas of the foreground. The painting and the quote, taken together seemed the perfect metaphorical doorway into the project for us. In fact we even ended up using some of the actual volcanoes of Java as recurring background elements in our constructed Martian landscapes.
Here's Schopenhauer’s categorization of sublime feelings (very German!):
* Feeling of Beauty – Light is reflected off a flower. (Pleasure from a mere perception of an object that cannot hurt observer).
* Weakest Feeling of Sublime – Light reflected off stones. (Pleasure from beholding objects that pose no threat, yet themselves are devoid of life).
* Weaker Feeling of Sublime – Endless desert with no movement. (Pleasure from seeing objects that could not sustain the life of the observer).
* Sublime – Turbulent Nature. (Pleasure from perceiving objects that threaten to hurt or destroy observer).
* Full Feeling of Sublime – Overpowering turbulent Nature. (Pleasure from beholding very violent, destructive objects).
* Fullest Feeling of Sublime – Immensity of Universe's extent or duration. (Pleasure from knowledge of observer's nothingness and oneness with Nature).
In terms of cycles, we think in this project we became interested in exploring what might be referred to as 'geological time' - we've seen this in certain films, such as “2001” where Kubrick cuts from caveman days right to the future, skipping recorded human history entirely! So in "the Hourglass Sea" we set ourselves free to let the project somehow encompass millennia, right back or forward to a time when Mars had surface water. To do this we had to let go of many of our own linear, narrative notions, which we think is a good thing for us.
SF: Somehow I am not too surprised that I mentioned the clocks in this conversation, since in my experience, the entity Kahn & Selesnick, perhaps with all its time-machine experiments, seems to have increased the probability of synchronicity within its energetic field to a rate above that which the average American or Brit enjoys. (In fact, the reader may be interested to know that I saw your work and learned of your existence for the first time when a book suddenly and without provocation fell off a shelf in front of me as I was going about my business looking for something else--an event which has occurred numerous times in my life and which, I have come to learn, signals something funny is about to go on with time and space--and so I took notice when Fence magazine with a two-headed Richard on the cover suddenly lunged at me. Then a week or so later, through nonordinary means I won’t go into here, I met you both and, of course thanks to one of you more than the other, an irrevocable impact on my life followed.)
I suspect it is your long-term collaboration that facilitates an openness to synchronicities most of all—as well as to a general fluidity with space and time and all the rest. Experiencing the sublime is an overwhelm-ment, a transgression of personal boundaries, a relinquishing of personal control, a losing of self, and a transcendent absorption into something bigger than yourself and the sum of all the parts—as is collaboration. So, I am interested in all that, and some of the other side-effects and deliberately-courted functions of your fundamentally collaborative nature.
Not only is Kahn & Selesnick a multiplicity where usually we find a lone agent--your dialectic, yin-yang, two-headed beast also participates in all sorts of other micro- and macro-collaborations with other people. Having myself been a participant from time to time, and for comparison having also collaborated frequently with other individuals for various purposes, I find it interesting that with K/S oftentimes a moment arises in which face-value verbal communication is not the primary mode the collaboration is using to move forward and through the project—I have experienced this most frequently with other collaborations when the usual sublime-invokers ritual, meditation, danger, drugs, or live music (which is, after all, a medicine) are somehow involved, whereas none of those were present in my collaborations with you. I have also observed that, as it is for many artists, there are times when what you do under the aegis of art-making seems your primary spiritual or mystical practice; as far as I know neither of you has any other formal personal practice along those lines.
So I’m interested in all these things in relationship to your collaboration as Kahn & Selesnick and also within the “Adrift” project how the collaboration between the women takes place: twinned beings inventing and deconstructing the human-made, amidst bleak and beautiful, wonderful and frightening landscapes that easily give rise to visions and different states of being. It seems to me that in the “Adrift” project you are among all the other things that you accomplish, also perhaps presenting a crystallized depiction of Kahn & Selesnick’s process.
K/S: Let’s return to the dividing cell from which we all come and to which this project comes back to again and again. The hourglass, a time telling device, is inverted endlessly in cycles—and laid on its side, is the symbol for infinity. One reading of our dreams is that Mars may be Earth’s twin, whose past is our present, and whose present is our horror of our future. Or turn that upside down, or on its side. Endlessly, adrift, the hourglass sea.
One finds the double mind again in the shape of the "Lithops plant" or "Living Stones" as they are commonly called, whose earthly habitat is the harsh deserts of southern Africa, and which appear in the project being cultivated in the decaying oxygen farms, and whose larger bifurcated structure seems to echo exactly the stages of cellular mitosis. Elsewhere in the photographs and sculptures one finds the clustering of spheres, each burbling out of another, concretized into the stone barques that move at geologic pace across the former seas of Mars in great podlike armadas, their cargo the two-faced hermaphroditic Janus, god of gates, portals, beginnings and endings, whose surface explodes like a bacterial colony of further spheres. Pods split open from giant squidlike rockets, seeding Mars with boitrydal clusters of hematite, their rough rust red nearly-perfectly- spherical forms that the twin robotic emissaries from our civilization—Spirit and Opportunity--have repeatedly found littered across the planet. NASA engineers dubbed these forms " blueberries," and the same blueberries litter the deserts of southern Utah, repeating the dividing cell motif. The two women seen on Mars collaborate on the not-yet-possible-on-Earth, a child. Are they divine, crystallizing from virgin soil the first human born on another planet? Or using techniques of advanced Tibetan Buddhist meditation in their mountain top cell, alone in the horror of the vacuum, using intention to create their white-swaddled baby much as Alexandra David Neal observed monks creating human thought-form companions from scratch in Magic and Mystery in Tibet.
The cave, on Mars, we decided is central to life: Bellona’s womb, the uterus of the Roman god Mars’ fierce female companion. If Earth is shattered by war—the domain of the god Mars--will we send a lifemaker, a nurturer, to make another go at it, and perhaps this time we won’t destroy the planet? In the moist caves whose phalli-studded flanks gnash and chew the subsurface of the volcanic planet, the silver-suited messengers of all our hopes discover tin and lead statuettes, crudely formed yet prescient of their own arrival, quicksilver gods on a planet drained of water, time and life. Not one month after we photographed our first Martian cave scene did a 7th grade science class in Cottonwood, California discover a cave on Mars, which NASA had previously overlooked.
The deeper we carve our runnels into the red planet, forming canals upon Martian surfaces that mirror our inner processes, the more connected we feel to the rest of this planet Earth and its life, the more precious each drop of water seems. The Morphic Resonances that Rupert Sheldrake describes to explain the seeming-eccentricities of time and space are at the root of whatever mystical practices feed our joint vision of planetary birth and collapse. We have no answers here, under the silver suits we are naked and helpless, but through some unseen forces, at one with everything and everyone. The planets whose positions at our births seem to imprint our fortunes into our cells by means of some magic yet to be described by our science seem to align us in a clockwork patterning that grinds against our perhaps-illusory individual free will, whilst connecting us across time and space.
Adrift on the Hourglass Sea
On view at Carroll and Sons through October 23, 2010
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