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Crawling through time

An exhibition that includes three videos asks more in patience than it delivers in content.

September 18, 2003|Holly Myers | Special to The Times

Euan MacDonald's exhibition at the Cal State Long Beach University Art Museum, though modest in size, feels peculiarly time-consuming.

It's not that the show's three videos are especially long -- their combined duration hardly exceeds that of a TV sitcom -- but rather that they're so resolutely bereft of action or visual stimulation. If a sitcom tends to shuttle its audience briskly through time on multiple waves of distraction, MacDonald's seems intent on lulling (or, less generously, boring) his viewers into an acute awareness of every passing moment. Should you persevere through each video in its entirety -- and there are reasons to do so -- you may find those moments growing quite long.

Each work revolves around a single, minimal action. One five-minute piece chronicles the slow, determined trek of a snail across an empty square foot of dirt. Another involves an old woman who appears on a stage, stares at the camera for nearly five minutes, then disappears behind the curtain. The third, 15 minutes long, focuses on a decrepit boathouse that looks ready to collapse at any moment into the lake on which it sits. Each video is composed of one fixed and formally unexceptional shot and is installed in the gallery as a straightforward projection.

MacDonald is clearly aware of the expectations viewers tend to bring to video, and he subtly toys with them. The appearance of the proverbially sluggish snail in a medium valued for its ease in capturing movement surely evokes a certain irony, as does the appearance on a stage of one who says and does nothing. In both cases, the viewer's anticipation of some movement, sound or other indication of eventfulness -- for some reason, that is, to be watching in the first place -- is simply left to burn itself out.

In the third work, MacDonald is somewhat more coy, actively arousing expectation with a suggestive title -- "house (everythinghappensatonce)" -- but delivering only an anticlimactic incidental: not the collapse of the building but merely the brief appearance of a speedboat.

There is reason enough to question our expectancy in regard to the moving image. In a world largely determined by the commercial rhythm of television, the swelling spectacularity of cinema and the visual lawlessness of the Internet, it's often difficult, if not impossible, to tell the difference between a conditioned response and a genuine desire. MacDonald's strategy of slowing time and evacuating experience of its clutter, though hardly new, is a reasonable response to such a state of affairs, and it does yield the occasional insight. The weird, almost static motion of the snail, for example, may remind one to practice patience; the woman on the stage, enigmatically identified in the work's title as a "healer," inspires a sort of calm.

Unfortunately, these insights are few and tryingly inconclusive. Whatever we might like to believe about the ability of viewers to "draw their own conclusions," art still requires a certain alchemy: the shift of a thing (or idea) from one state of being into something more valuable. It's not apparent here. That is to say, I'm not sure what I'm meant to learn from this snail that I wouldn't learn in a much fuller and more enjoyable way were I to encounter it in nature.

The exhibition's two works on paper, which also deal loosely with issues of time, are similarly unremarkable. One of these is a 12-drawing series titled "world reversal" (2003), which, depending on the direction you read it, charts either the formation or the disintegration of a cruise ship, as if over millenniums. (At one end it appears whole, floating on a still ocean; at the other it's just a few scraps scattered on a plain of cracked mud.) MacDonald's technique is efficient but unexpressive, which makes the drawings, while handsome, difficult to get excited about.

Somewhat more enjoyable is "instant karma extended" (2003), an inkjet print that repeats two lines from the eponymous John Lennon song -- "Yeah we all shine on / Like the moon and the stars and the sun" -- over and over in tiny red print down a 30-inch-by-40-inch sheet of paper. Though the piece is no less vague than the others in a conceptual sense -- it has something to do with repetition, the concept of morality, pop culture -- the dynamism of its language and the melody it involuntarily calls to mind offer a welcome dose of genuine aesthetic pleasure.

Many of the issues at play in this work -- time, duration, narrative (or its absence), boredom, the mundane -- have been weaving through experimental film and video for decades now, emerging perhaps most famously in the early films of Andy Warhol, to which MacDonald is very much indebted.

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