Norm Magden makes reviewer say Whoa!

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The sign on the front door of the University of Tennessee’s Downtown Gallery last Friday read “Closed for Installation,” and the windows were papered in black. But the door was unlocked (for a special preview for A1 LabArts members), and if you had walked in, or peered into one of two rectangles cut into the paper, you would have seen that the paper was not to obscure the installation from passers-by, but rather to make the exhibition visible for those inside.

Under way was Through a Transparent Lens Inside Out, a show of works by Norman Magden, professor of 4-D arts at UT. The gallery was divided into two parts. At the front were four monitors with headphones, where DVDs on loop displayed what collectively add up to hours of Magden’s previous work (including the film recently shown at the International Vampire Film Festival held in New Orleans, which is nothing short of a hoot). But what required darkness was the rest of the gallery, walled off eight feet from the door and doing its best to hide from the overhead lights near the entrance, where there were 10 more DVDs of Magden’s work, this time projected onto the walls.

What you saw projected was this, and lots of it: On a darkened stage, covered in long white gowns, wearing masks, performers carry white shields and move within projections of similar images, some of other performances, some static shots of masks and other objects. After I had spent several minutes examining the walls (eventually noticing on one a black-robed performer in a hockey mask—let it never be said that Magden is without a sense of humor) and my own shadow cast on them, a performer entered the room, dressed like those in the videos, with a white plastic mask on both the front and back of her head. For many minutes more, the performer moved among the projections while music played. (Some of Magden’s previous performances of this sort—available for viewing on the monitors in the gallery—feature anxious beeps, others ominous sounds not at all unlike Attila Csihar fronting Sunn O))). Here, the music was softer, likely to put viewers at ease.) At last, when the performer and her shield intersected with a projection of several masked performers moving their shields in and out of projections of masks, my focus collapsed under the layers. For that moment, when my eye couldn’t separate the here and now from the there and then, Magden succeeded in creating an abstraction not by deconstructing recognizable forms, but by constructing from the forms themselves. Don’t quote me, but I may have thought, whoa.

That was a highlight, if fleeting. It isn’t always so easy to get lost in the images. In the filmed performances, with no additional light source, the projector beam defines the existence of the performers. But then, of course, their actions give motion to, or disrupt the motion within, the images projected. This is true even of those performances viewed through the lens of an unmoving camera. But it goes double here, where there is virtually no darkness between images or beyond their borders. Stubbornly three dimensional, always caught in the crossbeams, the single performer can chew the scenery.

The performer’s conspicuousness seemed to foster politeness in last Friday’s crowd. My count of attendees topped out at little more than a dozen, and for the first three-quarters of the performance, most could be found huddled at the front of the gallery, watching the action from the doorway. When one man started to enter, his companion awkwardly touched his arm, as though to stop him. Neither seemed to know what the other thought appropriate until the performer approached the man and said, “Come in,” in a tone suggesting invitation, command, and seduction. He did. Minutes later, she was gone, later to reappear in the front of the gallery with only one mask, the one on the back of her head, to mingle with the crowd. (An element of watching the watchers isn’t surprising from Magden, who once made a short in which people in an art gallery are filmed from a vantage point within the gallery walls.) Later, a woman asked, “How is this going to work with all those people in there on First Friday?” You can find out the evening of Aug. 6, when the public reception will take place, though the show is open to the public now during regular gallery hours. If you’re worried about interfering too much, wear white.