The Otolith Group’s Medium Earth at the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater, Los Angeles

Guest blogger Tracy Buck visits the Otolith Group’s Medium Earth, currently on view at the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater in LA 

Los Angeles: The Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater (REDCAT) is currently exhibiting the video installation Medium Earth (2013), commissioned by REDCAT and created by London-based artist collective The Otolith Group. The 41-minute film complicates and poeticizes our relationship to seismic activity, its unpredictability and fickleness, and explores its consequence on the otherwise solid entities of rock landscape and on our own bodies.

A “notebook” or “essay” film, the work is the result of research undertaken throughout California, and is conceived of as notes towards the making of a future project. Images that vary in scale from hairline crack to sweeping landscape, that juxtapose the seemingly unchanging stillness of rock with the rush of freeway traffic, and that include banal city parking structures as well as seemingly primordial boulder outcrops underlie sections of voice-over that explore geo-poetics and the biological sensitivities of earthquake predictors such as Charlotte King.

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To capture the tension associated with the hidden and invisible forces below the surface of the earth through the use of moving images — a medium arguably at odds with geological drama — the film manipulates scale and employs sonic resonances in addition to voice-over. The title of the work recalls, but, I argue, also reverses the underlying gesture of the Land Art movement of the 1960s–70s, in which earth became the medium. Intricately linked to the American Southwest, Land Art artists such as Robert Smithson transformed land into site-specific sculpture in their consideration of issues such as temporal scale, human and geological physicality, and the sculpture of landscape. Medium Earth reverses this understanding by considering and assigning agency to the space deeper than the surface of the landscape. Rather than conceiving of the earth as available for sculptural manipulation, instead boulders, the strata of parking structures anchored in the earth, the freeways that span it, and even our bodies themselves are the mediums used by seismic force, and are acted on and marked by the secret tectonic underside of the earth.

These forces below the surface accordingly become characters with personified qualities, much like, as Aram Moshayedi has stated in the exhibition literature, an ancient god whose whims, caprice, and scale of time, as it relates to our own lives, we struggle to comprehend.  In the case of Charlotte King, whose words are performed as voice-over in the film, the land is mapped onto her body — her limbs, head, back, and stomach are correlated to regions in the world and seismic disruptions are anticipated and felt in her body as physical symptoms. Our bodies become much like the landscape: affected, troubled, and shifted by what we cannot see and can only partially predict. “Even stones worry,” as Aram Moshayedi puts it, because “faults hardly keep their promises.”

Medium Earth marks the first work produced by The Otolith Group in an American context, and is on display in the timely midst of small-scale Southern California earthquakes of increasing frequency in recent weeks. The work explores the agency of tectonic forces and presents itself as a project of waiting, listening, translating, of the manipulation of temporal scale and of agency. It will remain on display till June 16, 2013.

Guest Contributor Tracy Buck is currently pursuing a PhD in Art History at the University of California, Los Angeles.  She holds MA degrees in South Asian Cultures and Languages and in Museum Studies, and has worked in the Collections Management and Curatorial departments of several history and art museums.

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