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Moments of Solitude and Unity in "By myself and with my friends . . . " at ASU Art Museum

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When I walk into the ASU Art Museum to check out the video exhibition "By myself and with my friends . . . " I have an immediate positive reaction to the show, which probably has to do with the closely framed shot of a 700 pound seal with round brown eyes deliciously sucking in oxygen though an ice hole in Antarctica.

The video, shot by artist Connie Samaras and called Untitled (Ross Ice Shelf, Antarctica), 2005 is one of five videos - all featuring animals - that, taken together, examine the complexities of human nature, how we relate to other creatures in the world, and by extension how we relate to one another.

Samaras' 4:30 minute video is a simple steady shot of an enormous seal in the middle of some deeply meditative breathing. 

The exposition at the top of the show says, "We spend time by ourselves; we spend time with others. We are aware that these two circumstances differ greatly." These videos explore some of the things we have in common with other living creatures, from our herd mentality to our moments of solace.

In the exhibition space, there are four big screens -- one in each direction of the room with a small bench facing each. A fifth video plays on a monitor about a third as large. Sitting on four of the benches are sets of headphones for listening.

But the audio from the aforementioned seal video, "Untitled," does not have headphones - the audio is so relevant to this piece that its sound fills the space. What we hear is the deep lung-filling breathing of a seal who has just poked his head up from an ice hole. The intimate, relaxed breathing is a siren call to the space. It allows you to calm down as you enter the darkened room. It is also a hint to how experiential this show is.

Curator John Spiak (who will be leaving the museum in August) says the show was built around "Untitled." In the other four videos, audio is still an important component, but the sound is more ambient.

All of the videos feature animals; there are no humans present. But another important commonality is that they are each subtle pieces in a way. There is minimal editing, no quick cuts. There is nothing overtly didactic. Two of the videos in particular are more directly about solitude, while the others focus more on group behavior, but all are restrained and give the viewer the

opportunity to reflect.

Take, for instance, Once Upon a Time by Corinna Schnitt, 2005. The setting is an orderly middle-class living room. The camera's point of view is approximately 8 to 10 inches off the ground so the view seems to be at about cat-eye level.

The camera does a continuous slow pan around the living room. We can see furniture, knick-knacks on bookcases, a bowl of fish, and some potted plants. A cat crosses the frame.

In the next steady circling pan around the living room we see another cat, a couple of parrots. But with each continuing, steady-paced revolution more and more animals are revealed; a dog, a pig, ducks, a llama, a goat, a cow.

The living room rug is becoming more covered in hair, fur, feathers, food, and excrement. It's a domestic scene dominated by "domesticated animals." Animals begin eating a knocked over plant. The living room begins to resemble that inevitable scene in every teen movie where the parent's house gets trashed by a house party. This is literally Animal House.

We watch as the introduction of more animals takes the room from clean and tidy to a room filled with disorder and humor. It's fun to see how much doesn't get disturbed -- fragile ceramic figurines remain standing on shelves; the TV set stands upright.

"By myself and with my friends . . ." is so experiential that it's hard not to bring your personal stuff into a viewing of this grouping of videos. For instance, when I learned of a friend's death a couple of weeks ago, the loss was sudden and frankly, disorienting. Because even though I was just learning of it, my friend hadn't just passed away but had been gone for eight years. This rift - having an emotional experience in the present over something that happened years ago - was bewildering and dislocating -- like I'd knocked a body part out of place. So the title of the show, "By myself and with my friends . . ." struck a deep chord with me. Yeah, that's it exactly -- what I've been feeling. A duality of feeling alone and not alone.

Interestingly, when I mentioned this to Spiak, he said that much of his curatorial work is autobiographical. For this show -- which juxtaposes time alone and group behavior -- he'd been thinking about shifts in the world. Changes occurring both globally and politically in the form of riots and protest, but also personally, and closer to home, by having a young son and entering fatherhood.

The other videos rounding out the show are:

Coexistence, by Donna Conlon, 2003: This film features ants determinedly carrying leaves across a jungle floor, while simultaneously carrying leaf- shapes that have been painted, with what looks like magic-marker, with national flags and peace symbols.

Constance, by Krista Birnbaum, 2006: A white mouse explores the edge of a teacup and saucer. The mouse is balancing; twitching and seems to be looking for something familiar.

And Sunday, by Rivane Neuenschwander and Sergio Neuenschwander, 2010: In this video a parrot is listening to Spanish soccer broadcast on a radio. All the while the bird is eating seeds that have been painted with large punctuation symbols. The bird is "eating" the symbols that structure language, which brings to mind, among other things, the idiom to "swallow one's words". 

As Spiak writes, "The exhibition provides an opportunity for reflection, a time to examine and reconsider our own behaviors, to slow down and breathe. It is a chance to realize that even when we are alone, we are all in this together."

I found myself wondering, maybe our attempts to communicate (with ourselves and with one another) is as vital to our beings as that seal's need to deeply inhale air through an ice hole. Maybe we all need to pop our heads up once in awhile and make some declaration -- I Am Alive - out into the universe.

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