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Dark poem comes to cinematic life in curtained chamber

by Jordan Green

 jordan@yesweekly.com

The lines of Ted Hughes’ poem fall from the narrator’s lips like thunder from the mouth of a corrosive and weary god: “In the beginning was Scream/ Who begat Blood/ Who begat Eye/ Who begat Fear….”

Loosely based on the first lines of the Book of Genesis in the Bible, the poem opens Hughes seminal poetry collection, Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow.

Inside a chamber formed by four heavy, black curtains at Hanes Gallery on the campus of Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, a installation created by Simon Lee and Algis Kizys projects video on four screens with small clusters of chairs in each corner. Visitors may stand in the middle of the chamber or walk around, but the film images and soundtrack, of course, permeate every possible vantage point within the chamber. Composed of a sequence of thousands of found photos that have been processed and assembled into a visual narrative by Lee and a soundtrack by Kizys that similarly manipulates fragments of riff and music to complement the poems, the effect is overwhelming.

Lee and Kizys made it clear in an interview outside the gallery as they prepared to catch a flight back to their native Brooklyn, NY last week that Hughes’ poetry is the centerpiece of Where Is the Black Beast?. They took care to ensure that the visual images and music didn’t step on the poems. For all intents and purposes, every single word uttered in the installation is Hughes’ poetry, which is presented unaltered and unadulterated.

“I’ve known that work since I was 15 or 16,” Lee said. “I’ve always thought it was wonderful, but in particular Life and Songs of the Crow because it has a fairly dark view of the world, which I found fit in my own youthful, dark view of the world.”

Where Is the Black Beast? is one of three video installations in Hanes Gallery’s 3/3/3/13 series. Seitenflügel, a collaboration between Lee and Eve Sussman, shows a Berlin apartment façade with separate films depicting the mundane lives of fictional inhabitants. And Kivanrepu by UNC-Charlotte faculty member Marek Ranis marries images of masses of ice gliding across an Arctic landscape with oppressive loops of sound from stock-car races, making a point about ecological interconnectedness in the process of climate change.

Thumbing through a tattered copy of Crow, Lee noted the similarities with the experience of viewing the video installation. A reader can open up the book to a random page and have a sublime experience without reading the book from beginning to end. Likewise, the video installation plays on loop so that viewers can come in at any point and stay for as much or as little time as they wish. The installation eventually developed into 10 distinct chapters, based on different poems in the collection.

For Kizys, who has played bass with numerous bands including Swans, Foetus, Pigface and the Glenn Branca Ensemble, music and poetry has always been a natural melding.

“When I was 8 years old and playing on a numbered-key organ, I had just started reading Edgar Allan Poe, for example, and then playing this organ,” Kizys said. “I was like, wow, ’cause the verse was so musical and whilst playing, I was like I don’t know why people don’t do this more often. And that was way before I started to play music in any sort of more serious fashion. I always had this thing in my head that somehow music and poetry should be married.”

The visual element of the installation came from Lee’s collection of found photographs that he rescued from yard, garage and estate sales.

“Simon had to digitize an amazing amount of photographs,” Kizys recalled. “He’s got bags and bags and bags of all these accumulated snapshots that he’s collected over the years — this is a passion of his, right? When he said, ‘Oh, I think I have an idea about the visual element,’ I thought that was really cool that somehow there’s a logical culmination of these actions that happened years ago. Now, you’ve given them a reason because there was a purpose for keeping them around.”

Using the technique popularized by Civil War documentarian Ken Burns, Lee lets a video camera pan across the photos to give them a sense of movement. Conversely, he took some video footage and chopped it up into frames to provide a seamless thread with the rest of the material. In some passages, a light flashes across the images, creating a strobe-light effect.

Similarly, Kizys has a catalogue of riffs that he’s recorded over the years. To make Where Is the Black Beast? he took some of the pieces and manipulated them through techniques such as stretching to fit with the cadence of the poetry.

Lee expressed gratitude on behalf of himself and Kizys to the staff at the gallery.

“We’re quite demanding about the conditions we want, so we want to thank the Hanes Gallery,” Lee said. “We’ve been in some bad situations. We would say, ‘We want it to sound like this. We need the projectors to be like this….’ It is an installation, and it is a f*cking pain in the ass to do.”

WANNA go?

3/3/3/13, a series of three video presentations, runs through March 28 at Hanes Gallery on the campus of Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem. Visit hanesgallery.wfu.edu or call 336.758.5585 for additional information.

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