1.18 / Review

The Secret Welcome of Space and it’s Prehistoric Future

By Carol Anne McChrystal June 30, 2010

Each piece in Ellen Black and Sarah McMenimen’s quasi-collaborative endeavor, “The Secret Welcome of Space and it’s [sic] Prehistoric Future,” is titled beginning with a date, indicating that it’s one piece in the timeline of an overarching narrative. The work is jammed together in Michelle Blade’s alternative art space, Sight School, to create a museological survey of otherworldly beings secretly living among us on Earth and leaving behind an obscure breadcrumb trail of their existence. According to the artists, this show is made up of five of these decoded transmissions found in American popular culture.

The strength of “The Secret Welcome of Space” lies in the one-to-one relationship between titles and works. Without this, Black and McMenamin’s charming objects would be mysterious poetry, and their interpretations would be infinite. For example, the distorted audio, sloppy keying, and geometric designs hovering around shifty-eyed Brenda from Beverly Hills, 90210 are offered up in the piece 1991- Advancements in extra-terrestrial code-reading reveal secret communications through popular culture mediums and exposes one of those among us (2010) as just that: human advancements in extra-terrestrial code-reading that now make it possible to reveal other beings’ secret communications with us in popular-culture media, thereby exposing alien existence among us. As the artists arbitrarily assign meaning to Brenda’s glances, a viewer relies on the established framework to read the work itself.

Again, in 1963- A page printed in a publication reveals a portal, which proves a government leader's death was caused by his attempt to publicly acknowledge intelligent life outside of our world (2010), a torn-out magazine page depicts a picturesque landscape backlit to reveal a delightful—and perhaps manipulated—coincidence. The text from the reverse side becomes legible on the facing page, reading “That Day in Dallas.” A cracked and mirrored novelty light that looks like a moving waterfall is contextualized as a three-dimensional e-card unhinged in time: The Future: A communication from the future, similar to a current day postcard, is received and activated (2010).

Only 1983- A 12" diametric object is hypothesized to be proof of a Mars/Earth parallel (2010) speaks clearly to the intent described in the confusing poetry of the exhibit’s press release. These three photographic prints depict text lifted from Earth, Wind & Fire song titles from the album Electric Universe awash in soft, aura-like prismatic color fields of light. Demonstrating a clearer reference to the idea of communication through transmission, clumsy handwriting (as if by a spirit through a

Ellen Black and Sarah McMenimen. The Future: A communication from the future, similar to a current day postcard, is received and activated (electric waterfall piece), 2010. Mixed media. Courtesy of Sight School, Oakland.

Ellen Black and Sarah McMenimen. 1983- A 12" diametric object is hypothesized to be proof of a Mars/Earth parallel (3 prints), 2010. Mixed media. Courtesy of Sight School, Oakland.

medium) is inscribed backwards and forwards in triangular formations akin to concrete poetry. As such, 1983 is the only work in the show in which the idea of paranormal communication comes through without reference to a title.

Beyond the strategy of naming these objects after their imagined purpose, these collected works are unified only by an aesthetic overlay steeped in ultra-hip ’90s revivalism: intentionally unresolved residual color keying, mirrors and mirroring, kitschy thrift shop objects, and trendy pyramids. These are the new zeitgeist—the deer, antlers, and crystals of today’s popular aesthetic, right? And, while this aspect of the work seems irrelevant, it’s not necessarily detrimental to the subject matter or the overall curatorial concept. At worst, this stylistic variation reads as an Urban Outfitters look common to young artists in the Bay Area—sort of ’90s, sort of ’60s, sort of hippy-dippy-dreamy-druggy-headshop-digital-new-age-spectral-slacker-pop-cum-rudimentary-geometry. But, in a way, it suits the show; “The Secret Welcome of Space” is imbued with endearing child-like wonder at the type of commonplace coincidence that urges us to believe that there must be an explanation for anything beyond the limits of human comprehension. At the same time, it also pokes lightheartedly at amateur scientific speculation for attempting to unravel the mysteries of the universe.

Many of Black and McMenimen’s works stand alone successfully or would even benefit from inclusion in a group show. But despite the care taken to create a framework for the viewer to understand the goop of our cultural soup, the collected aesthetic of the show ruptures its coherence. Outside of the gallery documents—press release, artists’ statement, and title sheet—the rhyme and reason for these works to be collected together falls short, and “The Secret Welcome of Space” becomes an exercise in the suspension of disbelief. In a sense, the works are here together now and have meaning simply because the artists say so—and there’s no arguing with that sentiment, just like there’s no arguing with a person who’s convinced that he’s been abducted by aliens in the middle of the night, prodded and poked by little grey beings, and returned to the comfort of his own bed.1

Framed within this logic, at the end of the day, these assemblages of pop-culture standbys—teen dramas, magazine ads, an album with sci-fi art and an Afrofuturist slant, Chinatown-bought moving-picture mirrors, and conspiracy theories about lunar ruins and JFK—are points of light in the sky onto which the artists heap their own set of concerns.2 If Black and McMenimen are attempting to make a statement about epistemology, the ramifications of this gesture are underdeveloped; changing the meaning of Brenda’s shifty eyes does little to challenge my assumptions about what I know to be true or real in the world. These sculptures, photographs, and videos are akin to a rough draft for a solar system of ideas that orbit around finding an excuse to make art objects. The show evidences a collapse in temporality: cause and effect are reversed: here, humankind’s own fascination with the very possibility of little green men equates a priori with evidence of little green men. By the same token, Black and McMenimen’s collaborative endeavor—originating from a set of mutual obsessions—points to a simple desire to make and display objects and images by which they’ve been bewitched.

 

“The Secret Welcome of Space and it’s Prehistoric Future” is on view at Sight School through July 17, 2010.

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NOTES:

1. Sagan, Carl. The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. New York: Ballatine Books, 1996.

2. Sagan, Carl. “The Backbone of the Night,” Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. Television program. Directed by Adrian Malone et al., Los Angeles: The Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), 1980.

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