Miracles are close at hand in Julianne Swartz and Ken Landauer's "Miracle Report," the eighth of ASU Art Museum's Social Studies Projects. The pair spent a month-long residency at the museum asking strangers, "Have you experienced something miraculous in your life?" then building an installation around the recorded conversations provoked by that question.
The concept, having people from the community share miracles, promises intimacy — but the execution is a little muddled. The dialogue of the participants is layered in such a way that it is difficult at times to have a feeling of being let into a private experience.
The museum space is dark except for the glow coming from 26 monitors and four projectors, all of which show pairs of illuminated hands — the hands of those who volunteered to share stories with the artists. The composed shots on each monitor foreground the interviewees' hands and forearms, using only natural light from the Arizona sun, while a shallow depth of field leaves the faces in darkness.
Showing the hands like this provides anonymity to the speakers, of course. But looking at the hands also provides an intimacy as the personal stories are relayed.
It's an interesting choice. Hands often are seen as the conduits of power, thought of as receiving and/or giving. It makes me think of the layings on of hands that symbolically bless, invoke, or heal, depending on religious tradition. But the hands, when viewed this way, also are oddly idiosyncratic, displaying a range of gestures and personality — appearing intertwined, folded, clasped, wringing; some are adorned with jewelry and others are plain.
In one of the miracles, the hands on display are performing "sleight of hand" — performing magic tricks rather casually and comfortably, as if they were natural gestures, with small items such as a playing card, a dollar bill, and a pen.
The man attached to these hands, a self-described practitioner of magic, explains how his sister underwent open-heart surgery. When the surgeon told the man's family, "We've done all we can do," the patient's mother told the surgeon to go back to her daughter and repeat three sentences to her: 1) It's not your time. 2) Your family loves you. 3) Your husband needs you. The surgeon insisted, "We've done all we can." But the mother stood her ground. Somewhat reluctantly, the surgeon agreed to fulfill the request. Miraculously, the patient showed signs of responsiveness and recovered. The hands conclude: "The miracle is the mystery."
There are 31 such vignettes in the show. The variety of miracles shared covers a wide range, from medical miracles, like the one above, to wonderful coincidences to inexplicable occurrences. Both divine intervention and not.
But seeing the hands is only half the story. Sound is another key element to the show. My first impression upon entering the gallery was, "Wow, miracles are loud and cacophonous." This was unexpected. Knowing I was going to hear "miracles," I half-expected to hear something wispy or ethereal. But these miracles, it seems, want to be heard. There is something vigorous about them, not only in the volume in the gallery but by the layering of narratives. The cacophony of the voices takes away any isolation of the miracles. In other words, the babble doesn't give a hierarchy to any one individual miracle. But it also makes the audio, at times, incomprehensible.
But that's not to say all the miracles are presented at the same volume. There are three ways to hear the miracles — through headphones placed at only some of the monitors, by speakers hung at ear level, or by speakers that have been placed directly above the space in front of a monitor. In order to isolate some, I found myself standing on tip-toe to listen or leaning in close. Like having to isolate a conversation at a party. The volume of some made it harder to hear others.
The miracles co-exist and talk over one another. The exploration of sound in this spacially layered arrangement allows the viewer to choose for themselves which miracles to home in on. "We wanted there to be different ways you could enter into the stories," says Swartz.
Just one monitor in the show does not show hands, instead displaying a pair of bare feet pressing organ pedals. This monitor happens to be placed next to a monitor displaying hands at the organ keys.
The artists say they serendipitously found an ASU student who played the organ, which is played with both the hands and the feet. They decided to film both, not sure whether they would use the footage.
The collaboration became an element of the show. When the musician played a few bars of upbeat carnival-esque music, it became incorporated into the show in two ways — with sound and without. The organ music swells in the gallery space every 10 minutes or so, but the artists also asked him to perform the music without sound by unplugging the organ. The effect is just the frenetic rhythmic tapping of keys, which created one of the layers of sound playing continuously throughout the space, giving an underlying energy and a pulse.
The artists behind "Miracle Report," Julianne Swartz and Ken Landauer, are individuals, of course, but they are also a married couple. Though they often work together in unofficial ways, "Miracle Report" represents the first time they have collaborated professionally on an installation. The project took from each very specific things — each having different focus and talents. Swartz is known for creating sculptural installations using communication, light and sound that often have a tender expressiveness, like "Digital Empathy" (www.thehighline.org/about/public-art/swartz) and "Terrain" (www.imamuseum.org/exhibition/julianne-swartz-terrain). She also showed work in the 2004 Whitney Biennial. Landauer is a sculptor who often plays with scale and humor in his work.
Most resonant in this show is the idea of transmission. Miracles are temporal — only real while they are being believed in. Transmission can be delicate because it can be interfered with by competing messages, interruptions, disruption. But the layering of the voices provides strength as the recollections reinforce one another. How do you judge the strength of a miracle? As Swartz and Landauer say in their artist statement, "Our installation strives to embody some beauty, some hocus-pocus and some unexplainable magic."