New York

Rita Myers

Since the mid ’70s, Rita Myers has been integrating sound, videotapes and sculptural forms into installations that probe the intangible aspects of the tangible world. Investigation/Observations, 1975, for instance, re-created an ordinary room that nonetheless was imbued with mystery when cited as the scene of an unspecified crime; Barricade to Blue, 1977, featured two female actors in an installation that examined the complex emotional knots underlying human identity and relationships. In her latest work, Dancing In The Land Where Children Are The Light, Myers extended her explorations of the ineffable into the realm of myth, by creating an otherworldly environment that served as a metaphor for mystical and transcendental states of consciousness.

The piece began in the small outer gallery of the Kitchen, which contained nothing but three fluorescent lights, placed against the walls at floor level so as to cast a red glow throughout the space. This room functioned, essentially, as a waiting room, a buffer zone between the “real world” and the fantasy landscape awaiting the viewer in the large gallery. The floor of this main gallery was covered with crushed black glass, whose irregular surface was inscribed with curving pathways that wound around and through the space. At the outer reaches of the installation, three video monitors encased in black boxes were suspended from the ceiling; also hanging from the ceiling at random intervals throughout the space were a number of 18-by-8-foot aluminum plates. The environment was dark and mysterious; the only direct illumination emanated from a few blue spotlights on the floor. Most of the available light in Dancing . . . , in fact, was reflected from the outer room and the video monitors, and this light shimmered across the crushed glass and the aluminum panels in changing patterns and colors.

This “topography of the imagination,” as Myers describes it, was inhabited by three human characters: a man, a woman and a child. Seen on the video monitors and heard over four speakers placed throughout the gallery, these characters enacted a 35-minute drama, the themes of which were life and death, creation and destruction, birth and rebirth. The narrative developed linearly through an introductory monologue and three of what Myers calls “songs,” each of which was a montage of prose, poetry and rhythmic accompaniments recorded on separate and sometimes overlapping tapes. These tapes were complemented by three videotapes that juxtaposed metaphoric imagery and ritual actions in nonlinear sequences reminiscent of dreams, and which were seen on the three monitors simultaneously.

The verbal presentation began in the outer gallery with the introduction, which was intoned by a female voice: “If I had made the world for you this is how it would begin . . . I wanted to show you the world out of time.” This introduction set the tone for the entire installation, by establishing the fact that the viewer was entering an extraordinary space within which he or she would become a spectator to—and a participant in—a creation of the world. Upon entering the main gallery, the “initiate” heard the first song: a song of celebration for the “land that prepares you to spin out of the time of the first world with the powers that are given you to spin the world out of itself.” Throughout the song, the video monitors projected images of a grassy sand dune—an empty, virginal terrain which was suddenly peopled by a man and a woman who were at first seen as small, but who began to dominate the landscape visually as the song progressed.

The creation of the world was the theme of the second song, which was accompanied by videotapes primarily of the two adults, overseen by a child, who was understood to be their guardian in this mystical land. The adults were building a model city out of toys and blocks, on an island of crushed black glass. Throughout this section of the work, the connections between life, dreams, magic, language and religion were emphasized by both the visual and verbal imagery. Viewers were reminded that their world is shaped by their creative will—and limited only by their mortality. Even as the adults began to build their model city, images of a skeleton appeared and reappeared on the video monitors. And its constantly recurring presence made the viewer wonder whether the monolithic structures in the toy city were really skyscrapers—or tombstones.

In the third song, the “song of a slow ending,” the skeleton image predominated in the videotapes; the adults ritually covered and uncovered the “body” with a green cloth while painting its bony form red. When seen alone during the second song, it had appeared quite large in scale; now placed in relation to the model city and the adults, the skeleton was seen to be only a toy, a tiny part of a much larger universe, where time, according to Myers, “begins by ending then continues by changing.”

My only criticism of Dancing . . . concerns the videotapes: the gestures and interactions of the performers occasionally seemed too naturalistic for this stylized context, and as a result the acting sometimes came off as wooden and heavy-handed. But this comment concerns only a minor part of a truly major work—an installation that was both beautifully presented and highly effective in communicating complex visual, conceptual and emotional material with intensity and joy. To my mind, Dancing . . . establishes Myers as one of those rare artists who understands —and who can express—what Nancy Holt calls “the Big Vision.”

Shelley Rice