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Aria Dean might be watching me. On a recent trek to view Dean’s Suite!, following some brief disorientation in the REDCAT parking garage, I made my way into the curtain-ringed room housing Dean’s installation. The carpet in the gallery featured a deformed black and white grid pattern pitched somewhere between op art and an illustration of warps in the space-time fabric. In the space, a looping video plays on a large, curving screen supported by simple wooden posts wherein the same deformed, checkered grid looms as the film’s recurrent setting.
Dean plays with this kind of nested, surveilled reality throughout Suite! I entered the room with the film playing somewhere in the middle and encountered a scene in which a digitally rendered, leafy biped wanders tentatively into the gridded wireframe through a background of columns, slabs, and pipes. The creature has branches for limbs and is wrapped in a vine-y overgrowth, like some sentient tree from a Disney film. The environment through which this creature steps overlays the room I am now in with the garage in which I was momentarily lost. I briefly track the creature’s movements in this layered space against what I remember of my own.
Suite! progresses with a ruminative narrative in which the creatures, clad in swathes of kudzu vine, jerkily cavort in choreographed movement. Suite!’s score similarly meanders, layering electronic hums and whirring with strums of acoustic guitar coming in and out of sync with the kudzu chorus line. Dean blends several references—to the grid, the expanse of space-time, invasive growth, dance—throughout the piece, but they never quite cohere into a central or pronounced effect. Dean’s voice comes in and out of the film to read elliptical, philosophical texts (both original texts by the artist and quotes from others). “On all sides there is enormous room for more things, in all directions the universe is without limit or end,” Dean recites. Later, the voiceover reads, “we’re talking infinite worlds, new worlds, no center point,” while two creatures make out on a set of digital stairs, gesturing exaggeratedly.
The kudzu vine is a rapidly growing invasive plant. Particularly prevalent in the American Southeast, it attaches itself to adjacent structures and flora, growing with minimal effort, often damaging or killing the trees supporting it by blocking out sunlight. Suite! moves thematically around these notions of replication and reproduction (the unchecked growth of kudzu, the continual unfolding of a grid), with a tone of futility and resignation—rather than, say, awe—in the face of the vast universe. Dean’s use of kudzu can read, perhaps, as a rejoinder to the mindless, capitalist notion of growth for growth’s sake, or the need to fill a void rather than leaving it be. Likewise, the film surveils Dean’s creatures in movements of both performance and performed privacy, always choreographed, often synchronized.
The voiceover’s reference to a universe “without limit or end” comes as several kudzu dancers on screen preen or worry (it’s hard to tell which). Dean has spoken in interviews about time being an intrinsic component to our experience of minimalist sculpture in particular,1 and Suite!, with its scant set of columns and stairs, employs this and other notions of time. There is the time of vegetal growth—the real-time growth of kudzu is said, with a note of folklore, to be observable and even audible2—the time of choreographed dance, and the kind of non-time of infinity, alluded to in the persistent, dejectedly musing voiceover. Suite! maintains this curious, cumulatively somber effect throughout: Dean’s creatures are loosely fleshed out with the emotional resonance of erotic longing and self-regard, but leavening agents—joy, drama, transcendence, humor—appear in only two scenes throughout the film.
In one, Dean cheekily re-presents her sculpture Ironic Ionic Replica (2020) as a kind of totem around which the kudzu avatars dance. The sculpture, which was also installed in the 2020 iteration of Made in L.A. at the Huntington, is itself a replica of Robert Venturi’s Ironic Column (1977), which resides on the campus of Oberlin College (Dean’s alma mater). Venturi’s column holds up nothing, but vaguely seems to; Dean’s is simply a column, recast in its installation at the Huntington as a monolithic and flimsy totem, topped with air. Suite!’s copy of a copy of a decorative fake is a peculiar, perhaps funny aesthetic mastication, a kind of manic layering of Dean’s oeuvre and memory, like the cycling and re-cycling cast, characters, and props of the movie Synecdoche, New York (2008). The figures in the scene gyrate awkwardly and a bit cultishly around the digital sculpture, bathed in the purple-violet hue of a grow light.
In a late scene of the film, the kudzu troupe meets a violent, corporeal, and slow-panoramic end. The fire that eventually consumes Dean’s writhing, faceless characters feels both graceful and impossible in its neat cleansing of both a nuisance plant and the inhabiting beings on which it climbs. Dean reads poetically over the scene:
The winter of our lives, when the weather is no longer quite so mild and extremity not only looms but draws us in… A great wind of insurrection in the world, a cold harsh arctic wind, a murderous… wind that cleanses inescapably, like the imperceptible tide of death.
Kudzu is defined by a certain liquidity: dependent on a container to appear, and in turn threatening to the survival of this container. It is not a great leap from here to the realities of climate change, to which the above quote seems to allude. Kudzu borrows its sentience in Suite!, losing its primary attachment to roots in exchange for an epiphytic, digital ride on mobile subjects.
The sentience gained by the vines in Dean’s installation moves quickly past a discussion of invasive plants into more complex musings around powerlessness in the face of constant growth, and what defines “invasive” in the first place. The dancers in the film are zombies, existing only as hosts to a vine that lacks its own internal structure, slowly smothers its host, and can die only violently, by fire. There’s a pronounced futility in counterposing “infinite worlds” against the tertiary, even regional scale, of problematic plant life, and in this sense, Suite! circles an emotional drain, malnourished by its considerable, but often opaque intellect.
This review was originally published in Carla issue 26.