There's a strange bittersweet feeling that certain artworks or moments in life conjure. Sometimes, an experience feels profound because you simultaneously appreciate its beauty (or even singularity) and are sadly, preemptively aware that your future self will feel nostalgic for it. I could've sworn the Germans had come up with one of their oddly specific words for this feeling, but after an extensive Google quest, I think the closest term to describe it is the Japanese mono no aware—a wistful sadness about transience.
I think about this feeling a lot when I listen to Erik Satie. His compositions are beautiful, but there's something deeply melancholic about them—as if every note is being played with a longing for the one that came before it and sustained in some attempt to slow down its own passing. I was therefore intrigued when I heard about “A Night of Satie, Performed by Josh Nukem” at the Copycat's Lil' Gallery.
The show ended up being a pleasant surprise on many fronts. Instead of a piano recital, “A Night of Satie” consisted of a sprawling installation accompanying recordings of the composer's seminal works "3 Gymnopédies" and "3 Gnossiennes."
In sharp contrast to other spaces in the building, which strive to carve white-box galleries out of living quarters, Lil' Gallery was staged like a chaotic domestic scene evocative of the Copycat's bedroom/studio setups. It reads like romanticized ruins of various projects that were begun but never completed—2x4 armatures crumbling while awaiting a surface to support, a cracked sculpture repurposed as a fountain, and assorted studio detritus heaped into a monument suggest a sentimental longing for a work to be “in progress” indefinitely. It brought to mind the Arshille Gorky quip: “I don’t like that word 'finish.' When something is finished, that means it’s dead, doesn’t it? I believe in everlastingness. I never finish a painting—I just stop working on it for a while.”
The whole affair was dimly lit with candles and featured pieces by other artists incorporated like props into Nukem's mise-en-scène. The installation has its own anarchic logic; it suggests a cohesive narrative punctuated by surprising details, not unlike Satie's music, which is structured enough to be pleasant and familiar but keeps listeners engaged with occasional discordant notes.
Of these surprising moments, a sculpture by Lucas Haroldson stands out. It's a 3-D printing apparatus connected to an e-cig, drawing ephemeral clouds of vapor. The rhythmic inhaling and mechanical movements seem to be keeping time with the music, bringing to mind the film trope of using a cigarette burning or butts accumulating in an ashtray to imply elapsed time. Here, however, the electronic cigarette never diminishes and there's no tangible remnant like ash or a filter. Perhaps more poignantly, it highlights the absence of a person smoking the device.
Allusions to absent bodies recur throughout the show—a fitting compeiment to the haunting loneliness in Satie's music. There's a bare mattress in the corner, surrounded by take-out containers, candles, a dildo, and tissues. An open laptop plays a loop of a webcam model on the website livejasmin.com (instantly recognizable as the ubiquitous pop-up ad). Curiously, the model is reciting Charles Baudelaire instead of the familiar invitations to join the site:
“The Demon is always moving about at my side;
He floats about me like an impalpable air;
I swallow him, I feel him burn my lungs
And fill them with an eternal, sinful desire.
Sometimes, knowing my deep love for Art, he assumes
The form of a most seductive woman,
And, with pretexts specious and hypocritical,
Accustoms my lips to infamous philtres.
He leads me thus, far from the sight of God,
Panting and broken with fatigue, into the midst
Of the plains of Ennui, endless and deserted,
And thrusts before my eyes full of bewilderment,
Dirty filthy garments and open, gaping wounds,
And all the bloody instruments of Destruction!”
After speaking to Josh Nukem, I learned that the video is a piece by Daniel Guinness, who paid the model to recite the poem. It's creepy, funny, and fitting. The feeling of distance but implied interactivity in the work is echoed by another digital piece on a ramshackle desk across the room. A computer monitor displays a first-person RPG game. The figure's hands are outstretched from the player's point of view in a comically impotent position. I stood over the shoulder of someone “playing the game” for a few minutes, waiting for something to happen. Nothing really does—the figure stumbles around a bucolic forest, unsure of what to do, grasping at the empty air.
When I asked Nukem about his curatorial intent for the exhibition, he succinctly replied, “I'm interested in people who fabricate their own realities.” There's an air of introverted escapism that pervades a lot of the work here, often complemented by a slightly absurdist counterpoint—a very Satie strategy. In the center of the gallery, there's a small sculpture by Fiona Sergeant that feels like an architectural model of this sentiment, or perhaps an empty dollhouse. In the first “room,” Hello Kitty trading cards lean against the walls like paintings in a foyer. Beyond that chamber, there's an assortment of petrified citrus fruit and a seashell—itself a “home” that has been abandoned. It alludes to a rapid progression from youth to something withered and dry—Mono no aware in floor plan.
“A Night of Satie” is on view at Lil' Gallery by appointment only, with a closing reception Friday, Sept. 26.
Visitors can call (410) 858-6901 to schedule a viewing, or check www.facebook.com/lilgallerylilgallery for more information.