Heidi Kumao

Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center

The subtly confessional spaces between the flickering images that are produced by Heidi Kumao’s zoetropes and the homely objects that surround them held out the promise of catharsis. In the darkened gallery, small islands of moving light guided the viewer to each animated tableau. Rings of projected transparencies were set up on cheap record players with a vintage platter silently spinning. These pieces evoked the late 19th-century practice of using the zoetrope to create precinematic animation within a circular space. In Kumao’s installation, Feed, 1994, images were projected onto various surfaces: a player-piano scroll, a paper screen, blank photograph frames, and the interior of a cardboard box. The zoetropes themselves rested on equally idiosyncratic objects: a child’s chair, a small ironing board, and other domestic items.

Kumao does not merely expose the mechanisms of her art; she invests them with meaning to the point where they compete with the projections for the viewer’s attention. She deliberately uses worn, homely vehicles to hint at domestic secrets, violation, or oppression. Thus, the cryptic actions depicted in the animations gain texture from the context in which they are placed. In Swallow II, 1994, an animation of hands tearing a photograph is supported by a baby chair and projected into a frame suitable for a family photograph. Other installations use equally complementary objects, while the old recordings that sit in the middle of each zoetrope have titles like “Moods for Lovers,” and “I Wish I Had a Girl.”

Sometimes the projection seems almost extraneous to the structure surrounding it. Tied: A Duet, 1994, acknowledges three outmoded means of dispensing entertainment: the player piano, the portable record player, and, resting within a piano bench, two zoetropes. Here, the installation itself is so commanding that its formal and technical values impede the viewer from interacting with the projected words from the zoetrope. But most often, the installations and the projections provoke a response that alternates between the nostalgic and the visceral.

Vaguely ominous scenarios are repeated throughout the animations. In Kept, 1993, an emblem of domestic servitude—a silhouette of a woman sweeping—is framed in a cardboard box of torn photographs. The zoetrope projects downward from within a cabinet. Kumao’s use in this piece of both a box and a cabinet—enclosures that are both functional and metaphoric—are perhaps the most compelling example of her mastery of a deceptively rudimentary formal esthetic.

With this installation, Kumao reinvigorates a defunct technology by turning it inside out. She reveals the beauty of simple mechanisms as urgently as she explores the mysteries of human interactions.

Elizabeth Licata