Tending the Fire

Article excerpt

Cauleen Smith: A Star is a Seed

Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago

May 12-September 16, 2012

"We are all instruments, everyone is supposed to be playing their part."

--Sun Pa

For the second installment of the MCA Screen series at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, filmmaker Cauleen Smith created ambitious new work inspired by the experimental music scene in Chicago, Afrocentric cultural movements at their height in the 1970s, and in particular, the Afrofuturist explorations of legendary musician Sun Ra. Smith used installation, video, film, and sound to create a compelling and immersive experience for the viewer.

Upon entering the gallery space, audience members were confronted by The Ark After the Flood, an installation comprised of an aquarium with a mirrored bottom as well as a projector, stand, and sandbags. Projected onto the aquarium was Smith's recut version of Walon Green's 1979 documentary film The Secret Life of Plants (based on Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird's 1973 book of the same name and for which Stevie Wonder's album Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants is named; Wonder's song "A Seed's a Star/Tree Medley" from that album lent a version of its name to the exhibition). The film features time-lapse photography of plant growth and has had cult-like status as a cosmological creation metaphor. Accompanying this object was a soundtrack of musicians including Keith Jarrett, Sun Ra, Art Tatum, and Mary Lou Williams, each playing a version of Over the Rainbow, a song that has deep resonance among African Americans in its suggestion of and longing for a better life just out of reach.

With the projected image oozing over the edge of the aquarium, reinforcing the fecundity illustrated in the film, the installation was visually gorgeous; however, the piece itself as presented was disjunctive to the music. In her artist's statement, Smith wrote that she recut the film for the music and indeed, a close listening revealed this. Yet the subtlety and nuance of the music was lost because of the distance of the speakers from the object, as well as the constant sound disruption from Smith's installation in the next room. As a result, the soundtrack did not Feel integrated with the installation.

The viewer next entered Smith's Inhfinity Vortex (the misspellingis a reference to Sun Ra's "Saturn" record label, which he sometimes referred to as "Inhfinity Productions"), which was a hallway of mirrors ultimately leading to a screening room projecting a series of short films that together ran roughly an hour. As noted, this project was ambitious and it was only a dedicated viewer who would take the time to experience the fullness of Smith's intention. Walking through the vortex was a playful journey--one that demanded the viewer look at the faceted parts of self to approach history, and that they prepare for a distorted or perhaps ever-evolving view.

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Smith's statement opened with her observation that "in African and African-diasporic cultural production, improvisation signifies mastery. …