Winter 2009: v.05 n.03: AGRIART: COMPANION PLANTING FOR SOCIAL AND BIOLOGICAL SYSTEMS
Sheppard Fine Arts Gallery
University of Nevada,
Stephen Eakin’s exhibition of new media, video and sculptural works at Sheppard Fine Arts Gallery, University of Nevada, Reno, reflected upon the nature of mortality, remembrance and memory. The sense of permanence evoked by Eakin’s finely crafted sculptural objects was played off against the ephemeral quality of his embedded video displays and new media content. While the sculptural works comment on the cultural use of physical relics for commemoration (and as an inherent denial of death), the video, photographic and new media elements embedded within them explore the void these monuments are designed to fill.
These slides represent an archive of all of the artist’s belongings at the time of the creation of the project. They were photographed between October of 2006 and March of 2007. Each slide is to be claimed by a gallery visitor, who will then be written into the artist’s will to receive that slide [not the object it represents] upon his death.
Entering the gallery, the first piece to experience was a series of five lightboxes, entitled Residue. This is an autobiographical work in which the artist faithfully records each of his worldly possessions, presented in miniature as one of over 2,000 slides illuminated in sharp clarity. Each slide is labeled in a systematic manner, as if the artist was creating a catalog of his own life through the objects depicted—the artist even offers to bequeath the slides to the gallery visitors upon his death. Yet the sum total of what is presented leaves the viewer cold. Eakin presents us with the inevitable question, what is the sum of our existence? If we die, what do we leave behind? It is a self-portrait defined by absence.
Wood, security cameras, butterfly collection and video projection. The butterflies were collected and mounted by my father when he was a child.
In another work that uses a cataloging theme, Eakin presents the viewer with the glass trays of a butterfly collection in the drawers of a beautifully hand-built container, reminiscent of display cabinets in natural science museums, but also of caskets and morgue trays for human remains. The display of butterflies within is hidden from exterior view by the frosted glass of the display case. From cameras inside the case, the trays of butterflies are projected via closed circuit TV onto the gallery wall. The four-screen grid of the CCTV has the familiar, slightly fuzzy quality of the black and white analog image, reminiscent of old TV sets. At the same time, the grid’s live video feed coldly records the contents of the case.
There is an interesting inverse relationship between the interior and exterior spaces of this piece. When a visitor opens the drawers of the case to inspect the contents of the trays, the live video feed of the butterflies disappears, because the drawer space is left empty to the camera inside – what is revealed through opening the case is simultaneously hidden from projected view. It is as if the viewer can never experience the complete work at once, a part of it always eludes them. The impossibility of putting all the parts together and gaining a complete view evokes a sense of absence and loss. The theme of death is carried through in both the use of the butterfly collection – which while beautiful, is dead, pinned and cataloged – and through the cabinet, which references a morgue or mausoleum containing the libraries of dead souls. The butterfly collection was created by Eakin’s deceased father, so it is in itself a memorial.
For Keeping’s Sake: Dad’s Nameplate, Dad’s Hammer and Nonna’s Ashes is a triptych of three enclosed boxes, looking oddly like birdhouses, which function as reliquaries and urn respectively to Eakin’s father and grandmother who have passed away. The center box holds his grandmother’s ashes, and video screens embedded on the left and right boxes reveal objects within commemorating his father. While beautifully crafted, this piece feels the least accessible of all the works in the show – instead of offering up a dynamic interplay between monumental and ephemeral elements, the static video image reiterates the rigidity of sealed box forms.
In Memory Of is an interactive memorial. Gallery visitors can use the bench to add the name of a deceased to the projection. Every name added to the memorial stays with the project forever.
It is in the work In Memory Of, a new media installation in a darkened space at the back of the gallery, that the concepts Eakin developed throughout the show reach their full fruition. In this stunning interactive work with projected dynamic animation and charmingly crafted wooden alphabet interface (resembling a Ouija board), the visitor is invited to enter the names of the deceased into a collective memorial. These animated names float like ghostly specters across the dark screen. In the foreground, recently added names appear large and opaque. Less recently added names are smaller and increasingly translucent, gradually fading into illegibility and oblivion.
One of the many strengths of this emotionally moving piece is its openness to spectator influence. While Eakin sets up the parameters for interaction, inviting the viewer to enter the name of a deceased person, he doesn’t control the participant content. The entries range from the profound (such as “God is dead”), to iconic references (such as “Michael Jackson”), to minor celebrities (like effusive ad man, “Billy Mays”), to numerous personal loved ones.
While it functions as an archive like many of the other works in the show, In Memory Of is a living and ever-changing one, and one that becomes the collective emotional property of the visitor and the artist, allowing each person the opportunity to meaningfully create their own personal and public memorial to the dead. The viewer enters the name of the deceased onto the interface, then watches that name turn from red to black as it is committed to memory. The name floats into the collective memorial, at first appearing in front of all other names then gradually receding away. The strength of this piece is in how it actually manifests the process of memorializing and memory: the urgent need to commemorate, the committing to memory, and the inevitable fading from memory, the erasure over time.
Stephen Eakin is a young, emerging artistic talent and a craftsman in both new and traditional media. His works are visually compelling, emotionally moving and conceptually challenging, and explore difficult terrain with sensitivity, intelligence and sincerity.