The Plains of Sweet Regret
by Laura Bien
The U-M Museum of Art Off/Site's current video installation offers an eighteen-minute meditation on the social patterns that have swept the Great Plains clean of immigrant small farmers. The exhibit begins with a white-backgrounded montage of words evoked by the sere, vast landscapes to follow: "good hearts," "wary hearts," "the soughing wind," "tough climate," "a live spirit," "abandoned churches."
Visitors sit at one of eight small wooden desk-chairs set in pairs at corners of a cube formed by four three-by-four-yard video screens. In the center of the room, two back-to-back plasma TVs offer images complementing the screens. This visual bath is accompanied by a soundtrack that begins with haunting ambient minor-key tones, as the screens show long roads leading into a far horizon and wide, wintry plains landscapes. The TVs meanwhile offer a summer view of a hand holding a moving grasshopper.
On the large screens, the camera travels at dog height through brown grass, coming upon an abandoned barn. Scenes follow of paint-peeling empty houses, no longer homes, stark in weedy surroundings. The camera eye often simply rests quietly for a while on a desolate scene, allowing the screen to fill with melancholy.
The camera moves indoors to show wind moving a ragged schoolbook on a lidded desk with a hole for an inkwell. One room shows faded wallpaper depicting white poppies. Another has a blue table, a kettle-topped woodstove, and a cupboard opened to show a meager array of dishes and glasses signifying the austerity of the lives of the homes' vanished occupants.
The camera pulls back from buttery billowing clouds to show that they are smoke from a modern factory, in front of which a car passes. The TVs show a pumping oil well, viewed through a ripply haze of fire and smoke. In late-afternoon sun, the pollution is roseate and pearly.
Scenes of a small farm follow, including a calving cow. The film slows as the tottery calf turns its head to
get its first look at its mother.
The video concludes with rodeo scenes as the soundtrack begins a country song about a breakup. The film technique changes to a split screen in which each half of the images is mirrored in the other, producing moving Rorschach blots of bucking broncs and cowhands. Similarly, the song is manipulated so that its various bars are layered over each other in an aural kaleidoscope. The effect is of a blending of the cowboys and animals into one corporate mass. There's also confusion and lack of clarity, in contrast to the solemn, melancholy abandoned and forgotten dwellings.
Mary Lucier: The Plains of Sweet Regret will be on display through Sunday, November 19.
[Review published November 2006]