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Forks abound in `Snake River'

A split-screen video in two parts by two artists sometimes multiplies, sometimes divides its sources of inspiration.

October 04, 2006|Leah Ollman | Special to The Times

Nearly everything about "Snake River," the centerpiece of an absorbing but frustrating show at the Gallery at REDCAT, involves a split, a duality. The two-channel video was made by two artists, Charles Gaines and Edgar Arceneaux, both based in Los Angeles. It was supported and exhibited through the joint effort of two institutions, REDCAT and the Lentos Kunstmuseum Linz, and is accompanied by a two-volume catalog due out in November.

The video itself is divided into two parts, the first 51 minutes long and the second 75 minutes. It is projected on the gallery wall in a split screen, as two side-by-side simultaneous images.

Juxtaposition and contrast, even conflict, are intrinsic to "Snake River." They are what make the long meditation powerful, but also what drags it down.

The left-hand portion of the video begins at a quiet patch of the Snake River, with a microphone being lowered to the gentle rippling at water's edge. On the right, a chamber group is poised to begin rehearsal in an elegant concert hall. As the video progresses, the viewer is brought along on a journey downriver while hearing and watching two stirring performances.

In the first, shorter section of the video, the camera travels the river by inflatable raft. The ride is, in turns, smooth and mildly choppy but always an intimate encounter experienced from down low, close to the water. The camera responds to the current, and at times sweeps up toward the sky or scans the horizon and the shifting landscape of the river's banks. The raft covers an unspecified length of the thousand-mile river (which passes through Wyoming, Idaho and Washington); exact locales feel immaterial.

What matters is the pure, sensual experience of the ride, intensified by the lush strains of Bruckner's String Quintet in F, performed and filmed in the Brucknerhaus in Linz, Austria, and screened alongside the river journey. The camera moves similarly here, watching the ensemble head-on, then sending the gaze upward to the ceiling, sweeping over the rows of empty orange seats or fixing on the architectural details of the elegant concert hall, with its crisp geometric order and warm blond wood surfaces.

Shapes and angles on one side of the screen occasionally echo those on the other, but rhymes and consonances come more often from the related motion of the camera eye.

The harmony and purity of the first part give way to dissonance and complexity in the second. Gone is the humble scale of the raft. In its place come a speedboat and helicopter. The landscape grows more dramatic -- deeper canyon clefts, more rugged banks -- as does our distance from it. Signs of human intervention also increase, until we are passing over a section of river that looks to be a town's central artery.

Musically, we're in radically different territory too, with Sean Griffin's "Snake River Suite," a vibrant and jarring contemporary composition incorporating traditional orchestral instruments as well as synthesizer and a diverse percussion section. The rehearsal was filmed locally in the dark, moody Orpheum Theater.

During the two-hour span of the video, a nonverbal narrative unfurls, a loose progression from the intimate to the more detached, from sensual toward mechanical, organic to constructed, and in terms of aesthetic sensibility, from romantic to modern. Those contrasts suggest themselves through what Gaines and Arceneaux show us, not through anything they tell us.

But in "Snake River," elements come in twos, and the artists interrupt the sensory journey periodically with snippets of oral history. The talking heads are ranchers, settlers, Native Americans, each sharing an anecdote about life on the land beside the river. They touch on such subjects as confrontations over land rights and the integration of tribal and Christian practices.

Inspiration and instruction make natural allies, but they come together uneasily in "Snake River" for practical reasons (the sound in the interviews is uneven, so content gets lost or muddled) as well as aesthetic ones. In the midst of the video's visual and aural reverie, the spoken sections lapse into the dry and literal.

Both Gaines, who teaches at CalArts, and Arceneaux, his graduate student there a half-dozen years ago, make work independently that manifests their interests in different modes of acquiring knowledge and understanding history. Three additional pieces in the REDCAT show (organized by Clara Kim) offer the barest illumination of their separate visions. The video, their first collaboration, illustrates best the thrust of their concerns and the snags along the way.


'Snake River: Charles Gaines and Edgar Arceneaux'

Where: The Gallery at REDCAT, 631 W. 2nd St., Los Angeles

When: Noon to 6 p.m. or curtain time; closed Mondays

Ends: Nov. 19

Price: Free

Contact: (213) 237-2800;

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