October 11 – December 19, 2020
“She said, the center cannot hold,” Marianne Shaneen narrates over meditative drone footage of Lebanon, Kansas projected on a split-screen. This phrase in the opening sequence of Peggy Ahwesh’s 2019 video installation Kansas Atlas (2019) is an apt description for the practice of the vanguard experimental film and video artist. If there is one gesture Ahwesh drives home in her works it is an emphasis on de-centering, whether that be from hegemonic film constructions or patriarchal narrative structures. Heart_Land, a play on the phrase commonly used to describe the central Midwestern states of the US, also underscores Ahwesh’s focus on subjectivity and emotional expression as it relates to specificities of place and identity.
The exhibition brings together four of Ahwesh’s works that span the early 2000s through 2019 in a three-part installation that acts as a deeply subjective, non-linear narrative about America. Bethlehem (2009) (shot in Bethlehem, PA) Lies & Excess (2002), The Star Eaters (2003) (both shot in Atlantic City, NJ), and Kansas Atlas (2019) (shot in Lebanon, KS), symbolically represent each location’s respective economy of industry, pleasure, and agriculture, as well as their cultures of progress, desire, and conservative values. All are thematically and aesthetically divergent in their approaches, yet, as the curator Linda Norden’s keen eye makes clear, they all help to paint a disjointed portrait of America.
The exhibition is organized into three sections that emphasize Ahwesh’s multivalent talent for handling a variety of moving image technologies and is syncopated by a “curtain accompaniment” by Yunhee Min. The purple, gold, red, silver, and green curtains hang theatrically, but are divided up in such a way to create a sense of disorder, not unlike Ahwesh’s works. The first installation one encounters is Bethlehem, displayed on three television monitors set atop narrow wooden plinths. Edited from her archive of footage, Bethlehem originally began as an homage to Bruce Conner and was later dedicated to her own father. The work comprises a series of seemingly unrelated montages that form a portrait of her home state. Bethlehem opens with a time-lapse of a factory against a blue sky as the clouds shift; a young girl walks along a park. Cut to a man in a business suit who looks at a black and white hypnosis wheel on a computer screen then turns back around to look at a framed picture of a blue cloudy sky. The video sequences are dream-like and the characters appear to perform themselves, adding a conceit of artificiality which creates an overall surreal sense. The vignettes all function with the intimacy and emotional effect of a home-movie shot in an industrial American city.
Installed together and projected on a double-sided screen are Lies & Excess and The Star Eaters. Lies & Excess is an unfinished 16mm silent film that depicts two women and a man lounging and romping around a hotel room with their clothes scattered about, ashtrays and wine bottles askew. The 15-minute work exists as a fragment, purposely left unfinished with an overall aura of works from the avant-garde canon. A year later Ahwesh took up the project again and filmed The Star Eaters on digital video, with cinematography by Arthur Jaffa. The 24-minute video is a portrait of a woman visiting Atlantic City and reciting a non-linear account of her life, drifting between seemingly real and imagined scenarios. Set against hotels, motels, casinos, seaside amusements, and promenades in various states of dilapidation, Lies & Excess pierces the mythic image of wealth and glamour and questions the purpose of such places and their role in the American psyche. Shot one year before Trump declared bankruptcy on his casinos, the video now takes on a more political tone and a somber message. As the main character and her female companion depart the city, the Trump name, emblazoned in red, shifts in and out of focus like a mirage.
Kansas Atlas comprises a single projection of a split-screen video shot with a drone that pans over various locations in Kansas. The video features the vast landscape and landmarks of the state: the “Geographic Center of the United States,” a historical marker in Lebanon, Kansas; and S.P. Dinsmoor’s “Garden of Eden” in Lucas, Kansas, a limestone and concrete “log” cabin featuring folk art sculptures of biblical and political figures. As the drone pans over these various sites, the writer and filmmaker Marianne Shaneen reads an essay that meditates on issues of climate change, immigration, and nationalism from an ecofeminist perspective. Placed in front of the projection are two plinths with tablets under glass domes playing footage of political posters in a neighborhood in Topeka, Kansas where the Equality House and Westboro Baptist Church are situated across the street from each other. The former is a safe space for the LGBTQ community and its allies, and the latter, a well-known anti-LGBTQ hate group. The domes offer a fish-eyed zoom into the radically opposed beliefs of the neighboring communities, offering a biting metaphor for the larger state of the country and our political moment.
Kansas Atlas best conveys Ahwesh’s deep love of the landscape and the culture mixed with a hyper-awareness of the deep-seated contradictions and opposing beliefs. It frames the theme of the show and underscores the complicated America of the other works. There is no resolution in any of the works, but rather a reveling in the catharsis of the contradictory nature of humans in the pursuit of truth, purpose, and pleasure.