1.16 / Review

Jars Filmed Inside

By Christine Wong Yap June 2, 2010
Jars Filmed Inside, 1980–2010; installation view detail; dimensions variable. Courtesy of the Artist and Triple Base Gallery, San Francisco.

With their intricacies, their will to master the known world, and their countless tiny jars, Wunderkammers are full of charm, regardless of their contents. The Renaissance-era cabinets of curiosities are the precursor to the modern museum, and are characterized by a mythic blend of natural science, the supernatural, and a consummate obsession with taxonomies. Anachronisms, Wunderkammers are sites of exploration, mystery, and possibility.

In her first solo show at Triple Base Gallery, longtime San Francisco visual artist Elaine Buckholtz presents a personal Wunderkammer. With Hunter Longe—whose installation "Perception Projection Delay" (2010) makes a beautiful concurrent exhibit in the basement—she lines the gallery walls with a mirror-topped, ruler-edged shelf on which she displays optical devices and the eponymous mixed-media series, "Jars Filmed Inside" (1980–2010).

Dozens of assorted glass jars, flasks, beakers, and perfume bottles beg to be examined. Many hold scraps of films and lighting gels in yellow safflower oil. According to Dina Pugh, Triple Base's co-director, Buckholtz assembled these jars as an undergraduate student, retooling a film assignment to explore her interest in volume. Other vessels hold rocks, foreign currencies, butterflies, moths, vintage spectacles, or knickknacks such as a single mahjong tile. These poetic talismans dwell alongside scientific tools—curious optical devices, like a third-hand tool staged for examining a metal fan, samples of extraordinary glass filters, wooden pestles, and antique Japanese optometry apparatuses. A few containers appear empty; they slide mutely between re-purposed optical devices and Duchampian vessels of site-specific air.

It turns out that these objects are remnants from Buckholtz’s international tours as a lighting and visual designer for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company and Meredith Monk. Upon learning this, the artist’s personal, authorial meanings—inscrutable as they are—nearly negated my own interpretive connections. My supposition that the objects were autonomously selected, curated, and sculpted for me, the viewer, deflated. As Buckholtz’s souvenirs, they exist in her personal history, loaded with memories I cannot access.

It’s the Wunderkammer-like display that contextualizes the mementos as a collection. This lends a sheen of internal logic, and opens a space for speculative reverberation. As Susan Stewart writes in On Longing: “While the point of the souvenir may be remembering, or at least the invention of memory, the point of the collection is forgetting—starting again in such a way that a finite number of elements create, by virtue of their combination, an infinite reverie.”1 This echo-chamber effect is enhanced by Floor Vahn’s instrumental soundtrack, which features mournful strings playing an ascendant melodic phrase, followed by its descending mirror inverse. In the rest of the exhibition, Buckholtz offers endless reflections, as well as peeks through the looking glass.

Perhaps more than other artists, Buckholtz is cognizant of the stagecraft inherent in exhibition design. Galleries are essentially elaborate sets, where acts span weeks. Duringintermissions, walls are moved and props rearranged. As Triple Base’s curatorial statement notes, Buckholtz’s installations are scenes for “putting the spectator in the place of the performer to define his or her encounter.”

Indeed, the Wunderkammer is described as a “microcosm or theater of the world.”2 It’s no surprise that Buckholtz employs an actual stage in an installation called Buoy (2010). With Jars Filmed Inside lining the walls, Buoy activates the center of the room. A dais, also fabricated with fellow artist Longe, occupies the gallery floor. A circular mirror lies in a cutout at its center. Above, a warped mirrored disc turns overhead, held in place by a worn metal object—the titular float. Visitors are invited to remove their shoes and step onto the dais to view their reflections. What one sees is a mesmerizing, hallucinatory mise en abyme, in which the image of the self splits and merges ad infinitum.

Jars Filmed Inside, 1980–2010; installation view. Background: Jars Filmed Inside, 1980–2010, overhead: detail of Buoy, 2010. Courtesy of the Artist and Triple Base Gallery, San Francisco.

The overhead structure of Buoy recalls Olafur Eliasson’s installation Take Your Time (2008), another motorized, ceiling-mounted mirrored disc. Whereas Eliasson’s installation warped large interiors, Buckholtz’s vertiginous experience is intimate. The cutout, about three feet across, recalls an ice-fishing hole. At the same time, the mirror’s sharp reflectivity suggests an alternate dimension—a rabbit hole, a portal, or a tunnel of time wherein each rotation marks the duration of this peculiar perceptual experience.

Buckholtz keeps the viewer’s attention on perception with a series of untitled optical devices displayed in the storefront windows and back room. Visitors may lift and look through these Spartan kaleidoscopes. Made from flashlights, oil cans, and shower fittings, they seem familiar and solid. Handling them is pleasurable. Raising them to one’s eyes begets a moment of anticipation: What world lies beyond this keyhole? Wonder and gratification follow, as viewers stumble upon visual effects and discover attributes unique to each device. The optical devices refresh our vision of the world—it is turned upside down, colored brilliant hues, distorted into dissonant squares, showered with prismatic rainbows, and fractured into illegible sparkles.

“Jars Filmed Inside” offers a scene and a collection of props for enhancing our visual capacities. The works’ honest materials and straightforward construction convey an earnest delight in perceptual experience. This thematic is foundational, yet our concepts of seeing and knowing are always connected metaphorically, if not always consciously. Buckholtz’s Wunderkammer encourages viewers to enact speculation and reflexive perception.

Jars Filmed Inside is on view at Triple Base in San Francisco through July 3, 2010.


  1. Susan Stewart, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (reprint ed. Durham: Duke University Press, 1993), 151 as quoted in Allan McCollum, “Allen Ruppersberg: What One Loves About Life Are the Things That Fade,” in Al Ruppersberg: Books, Inc. (France: Frac Limousin, 2001).
  2. Francesaco Fiorani, reviewing Bredecamp 1995 in Renaissance Quarterly 51.1 (Spring 1998), 269. 

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