'Triangle of Need' -- beautiful and agonizingby Marianne Combs, Minnesota Public Radio
Nigerian e-mail scams, figure skating, and a Neanderthal language all play a part in a new work at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. The complex video installation is called "Triangle of Need."
Minneapolis, Minn. — How do you talk about a story that has no story? Or, perhaps, has hundreds of them? Walker curator Doryun Chong admits Triangle of Need is a daunting piece to discuss.
"I think it will be frustrating for viewers to try to get what this is about," Chong says. "There are many strings that are interwoven together here, so I think of it as a tapestry, where certain patterns may emerge but they may also disappear."
Maybe it will help to describe what the installation looks like.
Triangle of Need is composed of three different sets of video screens, each with its own soundtrack. They are all in the same large dark room, divided by thick red curtains.
In one video, a Dr. Obi has access to the fortune of a millionaire who has just died in a car crash, and he must write a letter to find someone to help liberate the funds.
Sound familiar? It's the basic plot line of a spam that may have arrived in your e-mail box, asking you for a small cash advance. But in this film, the people all speak a strange primitive language, and the subtitles often don't match up with the dialogue.
Artist Catherine Sullivan says she's simultaneously trying to draw viewers in, while also making them feel alienated.
"And the language and the movement hopefully create that kind of suspense, of being in the presence of people and hearing them speak a language that's unfamiliar to you," Sullivan says. "I wouldn't say that it's a way to distance you from the piece, but it's a way to make you aware of how you feel in the presence of difference."
Sullivan says she's intrigued by how something as mundane as a spam e-mail can speak to so many issues. In today's world, she says, we are closer to one another than ever before, and yet we still lack understanding.
Sullivan says she's using her video installation to explore some of these issues at a visceral level.
"I get confused a lot of the time. I mean, yes, we're in the contemporary era, (but) why does it feel like everything is so primitive? So it's that kind of anxiety that's produced by feeling like you live in the present, but hearing all this noise of the past."
The largest video screens dominate the center of the room. They are filled with lush images of men and women in noble finery. But again they speak a primitive language as they discuss the need to convince the last members of a Neanderthal race to procreate, and thus continue their line.
The film was shot at Vizcaya Museum and Gardens in Miami, which used to be the decadent home of agricultural industrialist James Deering. Sullivan says to her, the decaying mansion represents one of the first bastions of American wealth attempting to mimic European luxury and class.
"The place itself demonstrates the fantasy world of someone who wasn't very much in need in economic terms, but he was a very sick man," says Sullivan.
The third video piece at the far end of the room has no dialogue, just a series of images set to music. In it, Minnesota figure skater Rohene Ward pushes his body into what seem almost impossible arcs and dizzying turns.
These images are mixed with those of 15-year-old girls in white dresses, having their pictures taken in the gardens of the Vizcaya mansion. They stand in stark contrast to the Neanderthals grunting and playing with their feet just a few feet away.
Sullivan says she's playing with notions of contortions, both masculine and feminine, done in the name of art and sport.
But taken as a whole, what do these three videos mean? Is it a tale of the decline of civilization? Or a commentary on the affects of globalization on the poor? Curator Doryun Chong says it doesn't really matter.
"I don't think that expectation is to follow the story. It's really to not follow the story," says Chong. "Try to have more of a sensuous and physical relationship with the images and sounds from where you're seated in the midst of this cacophony that is going on."
Chong says Sullivan is one of the few truly interdisciplinary artists in her field, creating work that incorporates dance, theater, film and visual art. It is that rich multilayered environment she creates that makes her work both beautiful, and agonizingly difficult to categorize.
- All Things Considered, 08/27/2007, 5:50 p.m.