Mar 14, 2015

Digging for the True Meaning of Charles Atlas’ The Waning of Justice

Digging for the True Meaning of Charles Atlas’
The Waning of Justice 

by Jasmyn Castro

Fig. 1 Charles Atlas, photo from Whitney Museum
     On February 18, 2015, I had the opportunity to see The Waning of Justice at the Luhring Augustine gallery located in the Chelsea art district; one of the most influential art districts in the world. The Waning of Justice is a solo exhibition by Charles Atlas, a renowned American film and video artist, and is running from February 7th, 2015 to March 14, 2015. He is best known for  his innovative work in developing what is known as “media-dance”, or media art that uses dance as the main element of expression, in which he has been an important figure since the early 1970s. As a filmmaker and video artist, he has created a number of works for the stage, screen, galleries, museums and television. The Waning of Justice is his long awaited, second solo  exhibition with Luhring Augustine since The Illusion of Democracy in 2012. Why Luhring Augustine? Lawrence R. Luhring and Roland J. Augustine founded Luhring Augustine in 1985 with the idea that the gallery would exhibit work from a diverse group of international, contemporary artists. Over the years, their exhibits have consisted of sculptures, video art, photography, painting and illustration. It is only fitting that Atlas, an American video artist, who over the past four decades “… has stretched the limits of his medium, forging new territory in a far-reaching range of genres, stylistic approaches, and techniques” should exhibit his work in a gallery with a mission that seeks to support his unique style of work.

Fig. 2 Here she is... v1
Luhring Augustine Installation View
     Before attending the Luhring Augustine gallery, I read about the exhibit in a press release on the gallery’s website. Some preliminary research into Atlas’ work helped me become better acquainted with his live performance work and media art. When I arrived at the gallery, I walked through a large empty, spacious room as I made my way to a smaller room (a little under 400 square feet) in the back of the gallery; where loud dance  music was being played. In this room, the white wall was completely covered with a vivid, high resolution video projection of a drag queen dancing and singing. After a few minutes, the dancing shifted to an interview with the subject on various political and LGBT issues. I later learned that the subject of this  video piece, titled Here she is…v1, is a well known drag queen named Lady Bunny. Overall, the video lasted for a total of twenty minutes and intermittently featured no audio as video sequences began to play in the larger room I originally walked through upon my arrival. 

Fig. 3 The Waning of JusticeLuhring Augustine Installation View
     In this larger exhibition space, a mesh screen was setup in the middle of the floor and an eighteen minute countdown clock was projected directly onto it from both sides; casting an image on the floor. The numbers were not visually aligned in any special way, so I was a bit  confused as to why the clock was projected from opposite directions. Nonetheless, it was a captivating visual effect. Out of the entire exhibition, it was the one piece that visitors stopped to take a closer look at and attempt to understand. On the surrounding walls, various sunsets were projected as ambient music played  in the background. Throughout the video, words like “History”, “Shadow” and “Yellow” slowly scrolled across the projected sunsets with distorted frames at certain points. As the sunset video projections played, the ambient music was intercut with Lady Bunny’s audio in the adjoining space; so it was either silent in the entire exhibition space or both video pieces had audio. Here she is…v1 ended about halfway through the sunset piece, and resumed immediately after the sunset piece finished. 
     During my time at Luhring Augustine, only a few people walked into the exhibition space. None of them stayed to see how the pieces were synchronized. From beginning to end, I was the only one in the gallery. From a receptionist, I was able to learn that the video projections were being played from video files on computers connected to the projectors. Although the pieces were obviously queuing one another and seemed to be part of a larger message, it was lost on me. There was no refuting the fact that they were intended to act as a unified installation, but their styles were different from one another. Because there were no pamphlets or signs to put the work into context or communicate the purpose to the viewer, the exhibition failed to establish a meaningful connection with me and other attendees that I personally witnessed that day. It was only later through online interviews with Charles Atlas in various art magazines and blogs that I was able to gain a deeper understanding of the meaning of The Waning of Justice

Fig. 4 The Waning of Justice
Luhring Augustine Installation View

On February 13th of 2015, Mostafa Heddaya of Blouin Art Info had the opportunity to speak with Charles Atlas about his exhibition. Atlas discusses his thought processes in making  The Waning of Justice and the meaning of the exhibition as a whole. He points out that numbers played a deliberately large part in the sunset portion of the exhibition. Because his main practice is time-based media, time is always a part of his pieces in one way or another. In The Waning of Justice, there are eighteen different  sunsets projected on the walls as each video depicts the sun setting in eighteen minutes. Metaphorically, Atlas describes the piece as being “…about the end of the world, and what happens at the end of the world: you have a disco song. That’s sort of the way it goes. That would be great if at the end of the world Lady Bunny came on and did a disco song. What he means by this, I’m not entirely sure. But, to be fair, he goes on to say “…some things are obvious what they are and some aren’t. When discussing the interview with Lady  Bunny in Here she is…v1, Atlas  confirms the vague significance of the political subject matter. He states that he “…didn’t want to make a political video…”, but instead “…wanted it to be more open and suggestive and still have flavor. Having watched Here she is…v1, I would agree  that it was open and suggestive. It comes across    more as a portrait of Lady Bunny, who just so happens to be casually voicing her opinion on a few political issues; instead of being a political video. 

Overall, I think the presentation and arrangement of the pieces accomplished exactly what Charles Atlas set out to do. However, the intentions of the artist, connection between pieces, and overall meaning of the exhibition is not very clear. Only after doing some research on the piece after visiting the exhibit and reading an interview with Atlas about The Waning of Justice was I able to discern why certain elements were used the way they were, and most importantly, how they all fit together.

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