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My gym, like many, is lined nearly wall-to-wall with mirrors. While encouraging a kind of practical vanity (checking one’s form, in both senses), mirrors in this context also move one’s mind in an existential direction, particularly those of us who swallowed whole tomes by Merleau-Ponty in graduate school. On a Stairmaster recently, I found myself facing one of many mirrored corners and noticed something peculiar: that my own reflection was doubly mirrored, reflecting back towards me while a second mirror flipped this image like one might flip a film negative. Beyond the ticker text of CNN reading correctly behind me, I realized that I was seeing myself as others see me.
Our reflections’ high level of accuracy comes at the cost of portraying the reverse as our proper front: a visual dyslexia memorably lost on Karen Smith in Mean Girls. I thought of this phenomenon while making my way through Kerry Tribe’s The Loste Note at 356 Mission. Tribe’s work here focuses on aphasia, a term referring to a range of language disorders that result from brain damage (i.e., a stroke). We first encounter two teleprompters: one spelling out the text of a speech, the other the softly garbled interpretation we hear spoken over headphones by a person with aphasia. The spoken words break and transpose, warbling about the original formations that follow along the aphasic’s difficult speech: an irresonance between text and text, and text and sound.
Continuing in this vein, the subjects of Tribe’s three-channel video centerpiece, The Aphasia Poetry Club, struggle to reflect accurately what they are reading, seeing and recalling. Refraction, rather than reflection, is the order here: words splitting, realigning or re-associating like light scattering in a crystal, each spoken with great difficulty. The effect induces headache as often as hypnosis; that it is experienced as an effect at all is the troubling heart of this exhibition.
Tribe, to her credit, goes some distance towards mitigating the aestheticization of a medical disorder in the overall instructive tone throughout the exhibition. Particularly in the teleprompter piece and a series of prints showing words for color (Green, Blue, Salmon, etc.) spelled out in letters of color different than each term describes, Tribe enacts a paired down version of an aphasic’s everyday. These potent, Nauman-esque exercises reduce complexity to maximum instructive concentration, even while brushing up against the pedantic. From there, Tribe’s exhibition splits between aesthetics both immersive and coolly medicinal.
The curving, polished aluminum tubes filling much of the main room act as armatures for a small variety of objects (apple boxes, house plants) and blown-up images (lemons). These pieces carry the air of apparatuses meant to assess or correct through display, as does a sheet posted on the wall containing geometric images and written instructions divorced from their original context. They also bore to tears, particularly an arrangement consisting of tasteful wooden boxes, a house plant and overhanging lamp, which reads like something out of Design Within Reach. Tribe’s high-definition prints of everyday objects seem either curiously uninvolved or too subtle for their intentions to be detected, unless we are to read the aluminum tubing as neurons connecting key concepts across a fractious brain. Either way, this trip through the tastefully clinical comes across as an evocative kind of marketing, underscoring many of the unfortunate and unavoidable problems of exploitation in the name of documentary (to say nothing of the obnoxious art world trend of banal found objects).
The Aphasia Poetry Club consists of repeating tableau (the courtyard of an apartment building, the edge of a doorway, focal rolls along rock and crystal formations) accompanied by the voices of three aphasics. Here Tribe comes closest to figuring an art form composed around a concrete sense of its subjects’ agency in her use of their actual voices. Like that of Laura, strange and powerfully resonant as she describes in halting, circling sentences an indescribable experience in speech permanently altered by that experience. The video reaches a high point with a forest-and-animals children’s cartoon sequence, complete with a mesmerizing and incredibly sad theme song. Yet it is these durational engagements with Laura and another aphasic (identified as Chris) that truly tease out the unique and disquieting loops that the condition creates in those afflicted.
Tribe’s enacted disconnects and fissures within communication pose as an allegory for the contemporary condition of information overload: an experience that we share leeching its own likeness out of one that many of us do not. Unfortunate and tone-deaf though this may be, Tribe’s rich and often beautiful deployment in The Loste Note acts to dutifully obscure it while genuinely capturing aspects of the aphasic’s experience (I think). Beyond this, the problem at the heart of the documentary impulse is the giving of voice to a particular group rather than developing strategies by which members of that group might go about finding voices of their own. The problematic graspings of Tribe’s subjects in The Loste Note belong neither to us nor the artist, in spite of the exhibition’s byline, making for an uneven, aesthetically striking and morally murky experience.
Kerry Tribe: The Loste Note runs April 10-May 31, 2015 at 356 Mission (356 Mission Road, Los Angeles, CA 90033).