Friday, Dec. 2 at 7:30pm; Yerba Buena Center for the Arts; 701 Mission Street in San Francisco
Lewis Klahr’s Prolix Satori
by Kristin M. Jones
The breathtaking elasticity of time and memory in Lewis Klahr’s elliptical collage films is echoed in the title of his ongoing, open-ended digital-video series Prolix Satori. Time, of course, is a constant theme in Klahr’s work, not only in the decaying and outmoded objects that evoke naggingly incomplete memories, such as the ever-present cutup comic book characters, but in the circles that are constantly reappearing, and often spinning—polka-dots, planets, coins, old timepieces, stained buttons—and in the gilded leaves that have surfaced like fragile epiphanies in his recent work. Made up of films of varying lengths that tell of prolonged reveries and painfully slow or abrupt awakenings, Prolix Satori also contains the subseries Couplets, in which paired songs accompany stories of broken romances that are as haunted by the poignancy of vanished neon advertisements for Canadian Club and Admiral television sets as they are by hints of money worries, betrayal and frustrated longing.
False Aging (2008), in which music from The Valley of the Dolls, Jefferson Airplane and John Cale and Lou Reed’s Songs for Drella helps tell a story of passing years filled with longing and muffled regret, was the germ from which the other Prolix Satori videos have emerged. Nimbus Smile (2009) follows an anxious affair amid twinkling skylines, elegant invitations, crumpled cocktail napkins and dancing translucent layers of tissue, with the Velvet Underground’s “Pale Blue Eyes” summoning wistful disillusionment. But have we misread what we’ve seen? In Nimbus Seeds (2009), the same images are accompanied by quotidian sounds—teeth being brushed, nighttime insects, wind chimes, a squeaky faucet, a zipper, rain, sirens, noir-ish footsteps on pavement on gravel—conveying feelings ranging from anxiety to fleeting contentment, while also lending greater weight to darker images, such as garbage being collected on an urban street. Some sounds, such as a clock being wound or a typewriter bell, are as unsettlingly dated as the images onscreen. In Cumulonimbus (2010), the third in the trilogy, the same sounds take on yet another emotional valence in a story about a different tangled romance.
But love clearly emerges only through degradation and damage in Sugar Slim Says (2010), whose two grimly crooned ballads—written by Mark Anthony Thompson and performed by Chocolate Genius Inc.—evoke bitter infatuation and comical disgust. Holographic patterns, brash ’70s advertisements and lonesome flotsam and jetsam conjure a tough-guy spiral of graffiti-covered lavatories, card games, dirty dishes, booze, cigarettes and motel quickies. A transparent drug capsule plays at being urban signage, buttons float by piles of cash, a mustache or a ship’s rigging fill the screen. Wednesday Morning Two A.M. (2009), on the other hand, suggests a more stereotypically feminine brand of coping—as well as the softening of painful memories over time—with the Shangri-la’s “I Never Learn” repeated twice, first to objects and nocturnal images evoking longing and broken dreams, and then to a shimmering procession of textured and colored backdrops.
Just as scenes and rhythms reappear in individual films, certain troubling images and phrases crop up throughout Prolix Satori, such as “There must be a logical explanation—but what?” The caterpillar that first crawls into the frame and curls up in Nimbus Smile returns in a jeweled box in Wednesday Morning Two A.M., and in Lethe (2009) it metamorphoses into a butterfly and is captured, killed and pinned, like a memory of love. Set to music by Gustav Mahler, Lethe is an erotic, mournful, uncanny masterpiece that unfolds amid laboratories and a glass-and-steel wasteland of modernist architecture. The title refers to the river in Hades from which dead souls drink water to forget life on Earth—an apt metaphor for the emotional journey of the sci-fi melodrama’s protagonists, a scientist who becomes younger to please his beautiful young assistant, with disastrous results. Wielding guns and syringes, the lovers are killed and reborn, only to die again; water bubbles from their underwear like an eternal spring. Only with great effort do the carnal and the astral vanish into oblivion, and remembering comes to seem as difficult as dying.
—Kristin M. Jones, November 2011
video portrait of Lewis Klahr at work, created by the Wexner Center for the Arts: