Visual Arts

Loop Sided

Phoenix video artist Sloane McFarland is the first to admit that he's not quite sure exactly what "PHACAEANS," his laptop video installation at ASU Art Museum's Experimental Gallery at Matthews Center, is about.

A part of the extensive citywide programming for "Sites Around the City," the museum's current art exhibition dealing loosely with art about environment, "PHACAEANS" (which McFarland pronounces "fuh-kay-uns") certainly makes at least passing reference to the Phaecians (or Phaiakians, depending on which translation you read). They were citizens of an ancient Greek city sung about by the legendary Homer in the Odyssey, his epic poem that's attained required-reading-for-English-class status.

The Phaecians ultimately helped Homer's beleaguered hero, Odysseus, get back home after a 10-year string of run-ins with pissy monsters, scheming gods, disgruntled goddess-sea nymphs and didactic dead souls.

Their name also sounds suspiciously like Phoenicians, the present-day inhabitants of Phoenix, Arizona.

Homer's Odyssey, the story of a Trojan War-bound Greek hero seeking to return to his beloved wife and kingdom, is an archetypal myth of journey, trial, intellectual self-discovery and redemption. The story of Odysseus has informed literary works as disparate as Dante's Inferno, James Joyce's Ulysses, Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim -- even, some authors claim, Star Trek.

Both Homer's original story and James Joyce's groundbreaking -- at times incomprehensible -- interpretation of the Homeric myth adapted to modern times have served as inspiration for McFarland's Phoenix-based video pastiche, which runs a grueling 108 minutes. "The last book I read kind of seriously -- it took me two years to read -- was Ulysses, which is the James Joyce version of the Odyssey," McFarland offers in partial explanation of his marathon video project.

There's no question that McFarland's video, a composite of 20 separate pieces joined in one continuous loop, bears more than a passing resemblance, at least structurally, to Joyce's often unfathomable, 732-page novel (which takes place in working-class Dublin on one particular day in 1904). Both are perilously long, involve hallucinatory stream of consciousness, are virtually impossible to follow in any rational or linear fashion and are iconoclastic in terms of form and content.

"I have some theories about the movies themselves and what they could mean. There are a hundred different levels to [them], but one of the levels is putting it up against Joyce's method of writing," notes the artist. "My video is like modern literature -- it has to do with breaking out of structured form and it's specifically doing something inside the head. I think it was a pretty strange concept for a novel at the time," he says of Joyce's turn-of-the-century masterwork, "and I'm sure it's a strange concept for a [video] now."

A native Phoenician who attended Jesuit-run Brophy College Preparatory (ironically, James Joyce was also Jesuit-trained), the 27-year-old artist is also a licensed commercial real-estate agent in Arizona. He has seen the city of his birth transmute from slow-boat resort town to a city of rapacious, often disjointed development. "My movies are almost totally tied down with visualizing this place," McFarland notes. "Home is not Phoenix; it's a different place. So home becomes kind of metaphorical and questionable."

Experiencing McFarland's installation is, in itself, a perplexing Homeric odyssey of sorts. In fact, you'll be completely unsure as to whether you're even in a video installation when you walk into Matthews Center to see McFarland's work in all its minimalist glory. "This piece got finished literally two days before the opening," the artist reports. "It was a whole process for a year to figure it out. It had a lot of different components; it's really an installation -- you just can't see it."

Upon entering, you discover the gallery is empty, except for a grid-like montage of photos and several pieces of poetic text, penned by McFarland, lined up on the floor. The photos are stills from different video segments appearing on McFarland's own personal laptop computer, installed upstairs in an equally empty room overlooking the gallery like the crow's nest of a ship. Grainy digital images lie side by side with photo documentation of other video-based installations McFarland has done, including some from a two-part video appearing in a group show titled "The Family of Mayonnaise" at Barlow & Straker Gallery last year.

The floor-bound photo grid, which resembles an aerial view of a city, also includes pictures of old, cast-off installation props that McFarland installed, then removed, from Matthews Center before his "PHACAEANS" show opened. They are lingering after-impressions, a kind of poetic stain on your vision after staring too long at the sun.

You'll find basically nothing remaining in the space.

To add to your confusion, there is no sign directing you to the laptop-shown videos you'll find up the stairs. Only the eerie, muffled siren song of McFarland's soundtrack, wafting like specters through the space, beckons -- as Homer's fabled sea nymphs might -- to the second floor and a lone laptop mounted on a stand.

It is here your quest ends and begins again. The small computer monitor is filled with the crackling image of two valet parking attendants in front of the Ritz-Carlton on Camelback. In what may or may not be a dream, a burly black valet with earrings, looking like a refugee from Aladdin, admonishes another rather crude, star-struck white attendant to keep his mind on business instead of on the limo that's just pulled up with Charles Barkley and Madonna. The conversation dissolves into vertigo-inducing shots of the hotel hallway, a china cabinet stuffed with old porcelain pieces, a lounge singer, a bass player, a young mother and child (played respectively by Amy French and Ella, the artist's significant other and their 1-year-old daughter) -- with a freestyle voice-over of the artist crooning "Masquerade" off-key.

Those images fade into a slow-motion, nighttime cafe scene, over which ethereal, kazoo-sounding music inspires a sense of expectation and dread. Cut to a Halloween party with Cat Woman and a dancing vampire. Fade to a segment called "Spine," in which McFarland's real-life father has been cast as an aging security guard ensconced in a guard shack at the entrance to Santa Monica's Bergamot Station. The camera focuses on the melancholic guard methodically straightening a sheaf of paper, then switches to a fax machine and a car whizzing by the shack's window, as his disembodied voice intones, "Mother, where are you? Wish you were here." The voice, tinged with sorrow and regret, reels off the guard's poignant history as an aerospace engineer with three children who's been laid off, fired, divorced. "The horizon started moving," says the guard of his constant relocations, including one to Phoenix.

At various points throughout the video, both recognizable and anonymous figures from Phoenix's social landscape appear like alchemic apparitions, then melt away: John McCain being interviewed about his capture in Vietnam; Susan Goldwater, wife of the late Senator Barry Goldwater, talking quietly on a phone in her home; the Thunderbirds walking down the fairway at the Phoenix Open; Bishop Thomas O'Brien in black and red robes at a high school graduation ceremony; mall denizens pondering their surroundings; prostitutes cruising Van Buren; droopy roller skaters taking their last loop at a rink before closing. The cast of characters, who follow some baffling, unspoken script, changes continuously and inexplicably, their cameos following an internal logic and rhythm all its own.

Is McFarland daunted by the fact that most people may not stick around to watch the entire sequence of videos? "You're going to be bored sometimes," he advises straightforwardly. "To be honest, I was bored sometimes reading the Odyssey, but that's an essential part of the form. It's a dare in a way."

Perhaps it's the chimerical, ungraspable quality of McFarland's emotive, visceral work, as well as its sheer visual beauty, that saves it from being dismissed out-of-hand as yet another tedious, recycled, neo-conceptual video project -- or maybe just the cinematic musings of a madman who never touched a camcorder until three years ago.

Despite its burdensome length and free-for-all structure, Sloane McFarland's video succeeds in sucking us into other people's heads to witness voyeuristically mysterious, surrealistic snippets of life and dreams through their eyes. It allows us to eavesdrop on their thoughts, minds and hearts.

Granted, wading through "PHACAEANS" does involve elements of challenge and endurance, just as does reading Joyce's ponderous Ulysses or following Odysseus' exhausting journey through those strange, hostile lands. But, after seeing "PHACAEANS," you're left with the very same lingering impression: You may not understand a lot of it, but you know you've experienced something important and thoroughly original.

"PHACAEANS" runs through Saturday, May 20, at ASU Art Museum's Experimental Gallery at Matthews Center on the ASU campus.