On Etel Adnan: Discovery of Immediacy

Black oil paint glides, smudges, and drains over the surface; the varying gradations create an ink-like texture. Alchemy of pigments. Lines totter, as if they intend to step out from the picture plane. Vitality of strokes. The book-size canvas is inlaid in a wooden frame but detached from its edge. A gap appears. The painting could breathe, exhaling warm and wet air——as in Erquy, France, where the artist Etel Adnan has spent summers in her late years of life.

From her apartment’s window, Adnan sees the commune as a straight line on the sea, which is the scene she transforms into the contours on canvas. Adnan strips her fame as a colorist, and turns back to simplicity. The works made in 2021 are mainly in black and white, referencing traditional ink paintings. Her observation of rocks, trees, and flowers distills into the fluid outlines and hints of bright color; the sensation and imagination are left for the rest of blank. “If you have that strength, that deep natural conviction, that the bison is as important, if not more important than you, then you can paint it.” For Adnan, painting is neither the imitation of shape nor the acquisition of skill. It is, as the theme of this exhibition tells, the discovery of immediacy——to be with the ephemeral presence of things.

Among Adnan’s works, a new series of leporellos is shown in white cases. Ink is applied dynamically as how it is used in calligraphy, therefore the images derive from both drawing and writing. The leporellos is read as a book and folded like an accordion, page by page, score by score, resonating with the tiny gold leaves on Japanese paper. The West and the East, poem and painting, nature and spirit, merge into one.

Feb 1st, 2022

Exhibition infomation

On Memoria

A sonic boom constantly haunts Jessica’s head. It occurs unpredictably, waking her up from sleeping and distracting her from the dinner table. Memoria, the film directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, records a mystical aural experience of the character Jessica. The omnipresent sound vibrates in the theatre, inviting its listeners to sink into a lucid dream.

“It’s like a big concrete ball that falls into a metal well, surrounded by seawater.” Jessica sits in a recording studio in Bogotá, describing the recurrent “bang” to an audio engineer. Silence. She laughs with embarrassment. Any metaphor seems to neither explain nor help one imagine the rare sound that exists only in her head.

Jessica, an Englishwoman who barely speaks Spanish, wanders on the South American land like an alien. The detachment to the place makes her an observer: reading biological book in library, touching a 6,000-year-old skeleton in archology lab, and buying a fridge to storage orchids. She still searches for the sound, endures the solitary confusion, but does not intend to escape from it. The mysterious “bang” merges with sounds of wind, rain, and buzz of insects; it accompanies her from the city to the jungle. Like an eye of an anthropologist, the long takes of the film document Jessica’s journey, rather than representing a story.

At the end of the film, Jessica stands by the window, listening. The camera moves slowly from the window to the tropical forest. The “bang” sounds closer——an UFO is taking off, pushed forward by its exhaust. The surreal scene leaves ambiguity, oscillating between reality and fiction, the auditory and the unspeakable, the terrestrial and the unknown. Does Jessica hear from the future or the past, the hallucination or the memory? There might be no answer. Only the haunting, transcendent sound.

Jan 25th, 2022

Film information

On Jónsi: Obsidian

A faint music permeates the atmosphere as I pull the curtain and step into the exhibition space. My eyes cannot adjust to the darkness, my temporary blindness amplifying the auditory experience. I hear waves, thunders, wood burning, metal scraping, and vocal chanting. The polyphonic soundscape infuses the space, thus transforming the entire room into a musical instrument.

Obsidian, the installation by the Icelandic musician and interdisciplinary artist Jónsi, is now on show at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery. It was inspired by the recent eruption of the Fagradalsfjall volcano in Iceland, after its dormancy for nearly eight hundred years. Though during the pandemic Jónsi was unable to travel and to experience the rare scene, he conjures the undercurrent of natural energy in the gallery.

Over two hundred speakers layer ambient records, synthetic frequencies, and a choral hymn sung by Jónsi himself. Depending on the location of the speakers, the sound feels distant yet suddenly close too, like lava flowing from a volcanic vent, spreading over the space. Facing the densely arranged speakers in a darkened room, fear seizes me. As if being watched by Argus, the many-eyed giant, I dare not walk into the installation and sit on the central plinth. Standing at the entrance is intense enough: I almost hear and witness the process of the volcano eruption——sacred, sublime, and startling.

Jónsi sculpts his work with not only auditory, but also visual, haptic, and olfactory elements. The only light source is in the center of the ceiling, changing from white to yellow, dim to flashing, with the ebb and flow of the sound. He also perfumes the space with a subtle scent of amber to add an earthy aroma. The invisible sensory stimuli evoke the corporeal engagement with the installation, creating an embodied, immersive experience.

Another light-sound installation is shown on the second floor: hundreds of metallic discs form a convex shape are equipped with LEDs. It is similar to an industrial sun——the light is overly bright and unbearable to look at. I have to wear sunglasses provided by the gallery before approaching the installation, as there is a warning note says, “The lights in this artwork emit UV rays similar to sunlight.” With its strobe lighting effect and shutter clicking, this work is designed as a homage to Brion Gysin’s 1960s Dream Machine, a flicker device as an art object to be viewed with eyes closed. In his work, Jónsi touches the threshold of sight, probing the boundary between sensation and hallucination.

The adjacent gallery features four sculptures composed of natural materials: two rectangular planes are covered by resin, in a seemingly burnt, decaying status, resembling residues found after a volcano eruption. Sonic machinery embedded behind their frames play crackling sound, signaling destructive volcanic forces. On the adjoining walls, artificial flowers are assembled by arrow-shaped obsidian——the volcanic glass that is usually found in cooled lava. Here, Jónsi activates the life force in the natural world, and recreates wonders of death and rebirth generated by the volcano. 

Nov 7th, 2021