Picture Puzzle Pattern Door

Review

Picture Puzzle Pattern Door

By Brandon Brown June 9, 2015

I didn’t recognize k.d. lang’s “Constant Craving” as I walked up the stairs and entered the second-floor gallery at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA), but it has been on constant rotation in my headphones since. The tune—an adult contemporary excursus on yearning and temporality—was probably written into my RNA as an adolescent. It’s re-activated now. “Constant Craving” is a queer utopian blueprint for a love not willing to settle for the drab straight time of reproductive futurity, an expression of permanent wanting. For all that, marvelously little happens in the song, except for the repeated insistence that the singer constantly craves…something. But what? Lang doesn’t exactly say.

“Constant Craving” is embedded in Mindplace Thoughtstream (2014), the central work in Shana Moulton’s stunning exhibition Picture Puzzle Pattern Door. It’s played forward and backward, reiterating the circular endlessness proper to desire. It’s one of many songs (or scraps of songs), commercials, 1980s cable flotsam, audio material from documentaries and TED Talks, all recontextualized in Picture. Mindplace deftly arranges these materials as a quasi-narrative, showing Moulton in the familiar role of Cynthia, a mute character who has appeared in her video work for several years. Cynthia, like lang, is constantly craving…something. But what? 

Shana Moulton. Mindplace Thoughtstream, 2014 (video still); color video. Courtesy of the Artist and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco.

Well, one thing Cynthia explicitly desires is relief from pain. For Cynthia, as we learn early in Mindplace, is suffering from irritable bowel syndrome. She googles, as I just did, “irritable bowel syndrome.” Irritable bowel syndrome, or “spastic colon,” is a painful intestinal condition that is almost impossible to diagnose and that has no cure. The difficulty of diagnosis and strategies for wellness are reflected in the variety of approaches doctors and patients have taken to try to treat it, ranging  from talk therapy, to antispasmodic medications, to increased fiber consumption. Critically, Cynthia does not receive her diagnosis from a doctor or look for a cure under medical supervision. Instead, she seeks freedom from her pain on the internet.

Cynthia uses the computer to search for a cure. 

A conventional definition of the internet would describe it as an interconnected network of computers, organizing and distributing code that appears as a whole universe of content; a place we go to pay bills, fall in love, rage and soothe. This includes, of course, countless sites devoted to sickness and health. Just as millions of users find diagnoses for their ailments on the internet, real and cyberchondriac, Cynthia uses the computer to search for a cure. But rather than simply functioning as an intermediary between cyberpharmaceutical retailer and afflicted user, in Mindplace Thoughtstream the internet is more like magic than the mall. When Cynthia purchases the Thoughtstream device, for instance, it materializes off the screen and into her hands instantly. 

Once Cynthia uses the device, everything in her purview becomes weird and animated. The title of Moulton’s show, Picture Puzzle Pattern Door, is taken from a popular documentary about the drug DMT. I haven’t dabbled myself, and sadly don’t know firsthand the trippy universe of the spirit molecule, but Cynthia’s sober and staid room becomes recognizably psychedelic once she’s used the Thoughtstream. Solid walls and furniture warp and woof, throb and thrum. Two statues near her desk lean into each other and talk, perhaps an interior monologue for the non-speaking Cynthia. Cynthia’s body, too, like the melting skeletons familiar to LSD users, semi-liquefies, undergoes impossible mutation, irrespective of the strictures of clothing and walls.

After Cynthia’s body disappears into her dress, she literally goes on “a trip.” She travels to a secluded yurt-esque ashram in a grove of trees. Inside the structure, she eats Activia, a probiotic yogurt that Dannon, Activia’s parent company, markets as alleviating of IBS symptoms. The Activia too “works” almost immediately, setting off a hallucinatory experience for Cynthia. I put “works” in quotes because Mindplace finally never addresses the improvement of Cynthia’s IBS symptoms. Rather, we infer the adumbration of a better life through small gestures, little smiles, the groovy mutations of architecture and trees, the appearance of “Constant Craving” in the scene.

You know how DMT is a ritual medicinal substance used by shamans but also by dipshit burners smoking it by the gram on the Playa? This capacious demographic characterizes the affect in Mindplace, as it conflates the sacred and the profane without hierarchy or judgment. As Cynthia’s weird dance to “Constant Craving” turns into an Activia commercial-cum-Shakira-video, the feeling is undoubtedly funny and wry. And yet there’s something devotional about the scene too, something quite serious about the quality of Cynthia’s craving.

Shana Moulton. Mindplace Thoughtstream, 2014 (video still); color video. Courtesy of the Artist and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco.

Cynthia travels elsewhere in Mindplace, wandering through various utopian spaces, seeking wellness. Finally she finds herself at the beach. The voice-over is from Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor’s TED Talk, “My Stroke of Insight,” a new theory of brain injury and recovery. “Nirvana! Nirvana! I found Nirvana!” she exclaims. It’s with this sense of relief and healing, but also irony, that the video ends. 

I call these spaces utopian: the internet, yurt ashram, labyrinth, beach. Cynthia visits them, craving relief from IBS but obviously something more than that. That this “something else” is not clearly defined is characteristic of Moulton’s utopianism. This work certainly hearkens to a “there and then” that is not—that is better than—the “here and now,” but we are not given a cure for the ills of our present in Picture Puzzle Pattern Door. Rather, this show is a collection of experiments in various attempts to heal—a story about the objects and ideas we seek out and adopt with various levels of cruel optimism and tender pessimism; objects and ideas that are sublime, cheap, promising, pitiful.

When you leave the main gallery, you exit through the show’s other half

These utopian initiatives are not limited to the obscure but compelling quasi-narrative of Mindplace Thoughtstream. When you leave the main gallery, you exit through the show’s other half, which reveals that the gallery was always figured as a kind of clinical observation room. For outside, Moulton has reproduced, convincingly, the sterile and moody affect of a doctor’s office. First one must walk through a corridor lined with various objects culled from the commercial world of wellness, everything from legitimized appurtenances (acupuncture models) to magic candles that never go out. By arranging these objects paratactically, Moulton equalizes them as part of the common utopian impulse toward betterment without deciding, in advance, on their efficacy. 

Adjacent to the hallway, Moulton has created a space analogous to a doctor’s waiting room. In the center sits a round, green banquette. Visitors can sit there and try the Thoughtstream themselves while watching a combination commercial and instructional video. At some point, we see Cynthia in the bathtub, relaxing by the light of those outstanding magic candles. 

I’m not sure how to tell you what happened to me on that banquette. I used the device according to the instructions. I thought about all I craved, all I constantly craved. The little line of lights went beep boop beep. When I walked down the gallery’s stairs I was a decidedly different person. What can Picture Puzzle Pattern Door do for your own cravings, ills, feels, and heals? I suggest finding out for yourself. The show closes August 2.

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Shana Moulton: Picture Puzzle Pattern Door is on view at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, in

San Francisco

, through August 2, 2015.

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