Sci-Fi Turns Hi-Culture
Lynette Wallworth’s video installation at Lincoln Center

TO HEAR DIRECTOR PETER SELLARS TELL IT, video artist Lynette Wallworth is the one we have been waiting for. Better yet, she is the one Mozart was waiting for. All those sparkling operatic heroines — from Illia in “Idomeneo” to “The Magic Flute” and a steely Queen of the Night — were mere rehearsals for one strong female voice of wisdom and enlightenment. At last she is among us, on the Lincoln Center campus, with an installation that “is one of the most moving works of art of our life time.”

Ms. Wallworth’s dual installation, “Invisible by Night” and “Hold,” accompanies this year’s Mostly Mozart Festival. But apart from the rhetorical packaging, Mozart is absent from the enterprise. Mr. Sellars's own vocal symphony of crescendos, diminuendos and tremolos is as close as things get to anything even vaguely musical. His breathy panegyric insists that these videos are no ordinary artworks but “a directed experience [accentato] that truly does change [pianissimo] your own … physical, … mental, … emotional, … and … spiritual … alignment [adagissimo].”

It was Sellars, remember, whose sovereignty over Mozart gave us a production of “Don Giovanni” set in a glum apartment block. His Don was a drugging leather fetishist surrounded by sluts and psychos. So flattery from Mr. Sellars has a cautionary effect, more like a surgeon general’s warning than a product endorsement. But I digress.

“Invisible by Night” allows us “to experience empathy through interactive experience.” The simulated empathy engendered in an isolated passerby in lonely interaction with a digital screen has much in common with X-rated movies. It does not take a Marxist theorist (think Guy Debord and his “Society of the Spectacle”) to recognize that a culture whose social relations — among which empathy is key — are mediated by manufactured images presides at the grave of authentic community.

A primly dressed female figure advances through the fog on a life-sized video screen that fills the back wall of a blackened cubicle. When the spectator touches a heat-sensitive spot on the screen, the ghostly image puts up a hand and begins to slowly wipe away the condensation on its side of the glass. Eyes come into view; but they look beyond you like those of a New England zombie from “City of the Living Dead.”

Stylistically, the maneuver recalls Gary Hill’s 1992 video “Tall Ships,” in which the spectator is greeted by a series of projected human presences who approach the spectator, as if seeking contact, only to turn and recede again. Here there is only one figure but the device is the same. It is mournful enough that, with a costume change and some interest in Wolfgang Amadeus, it could serve for Dido’s lament, the aria “Ah, non lasciarmi.” But Ms. Wallworth goes for the horror movie bit instead. Blood appears on the spectral fingers and dribbles down an arm before the figure drifts back into the gloom.

By putting a hand to the screen, the anonymous audience supposedly “reaches out” in a gesture of concern — toward inanimate pixels. Suddenly, virtual strangers are the best of friends.

Without intending to, “Invisible by Night” fulfills the barren prophecy of Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novella “Fahrenheit 451.” In Bradbury’s bookless world, the ambition of the protagonist’s wife was to have each wall of a room filled by an interactive screen on which she, in her isolation, could project the illusion of true activity, true dialogue. What was sci-fi in 1953 is high culture in 2008.

Things pick up a bit in “Hold.” The upswing owes itself to Ms. Wallworth’s rummaging through the art of others: David Hannan’s high-definition underwater cinematography in Papua New Guinea’s Milne Bay; the stunning electron microscopy of Jeremy Pickett-Heaps’s adventures in cell division; and the universe filmed through the eye of the Hubble telescope.

“Hold” sends the spectator into a narrow, dramatically darkened corridor carrying a shallow glass bowl. The blackness is punctuated by five spotlights on the floor made by video streams coming down from projectors in the ceiling. The spectator moves from one light circle to another, catching images from overhead on the surface of the bowl.

Without a doubt, the worlds of cellular biology and astronomy are astonishments. The reproductive habits of coral, morphogenesis in algae, or an amoeba crawling on pseudopods in search of a meal should make the best peep show in town. But removed from any identifying context, run together in serial snippets and blurred by the frosted glass “screen” (a weak reflector, frosted glass diffuses light), images fuse into a kind of synchronized swim. Protozoa, sea urchins, single-micron bacteria, sun particles and whole sea lions melt into a water ballet that shrinks every miracle to a spectacle.

No distinction is made between one observed activity and the next and the installation evades the questions implicit in its own display. These are beyond the scope of something made to appeal to the retina. The fertilization of an ovum or the digestion of a paramecium, no matter. It is all just another light show.

“Hold” relies heavily on the format of David Hannan’s 2000 video “Coral Sea Dreaming,” including the trance music. The corridor is filled with a low, ambient sound with a near monotone pitch range from zero to 2. You know the sound — that synthesized drone you hear in the movies when an alien space ship is about to land in a cornfield while folks are asleep. And that is just about right for a somnolent installation that exists less to celebrate the glories of microscopic life than to glorify the role of the artist as a manipulator of impressions.

The installation’s own mythic version of itself (together with Mr. Sellars’s promospiel) is available for listening on Lincoln Center’s website.


“Invisible by Night: Lynette Wallworth” (Atrium, Frederick P. Rose Hall, Time Warner Center, Broadway at 60th Street, 5th floor, 212-875-5030).

This essay first appeared in The New York Sun August 7, 2008.

Copyright 2008, Maureen Mullarkey

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