Wednesday, April 3, 2013

SCREENINGS: Steven Summers, Empire

Steven Summers is a Chicago-based artist originally from Pittsburgh. Summers studied painting and drawing, receiving an MFA in Film and Video at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He now works as a video instructor for DePaul University and The Chicago Academy for the Arts. Summers’ works range from traditional narratives to experimental installations. Summers installed a two-channel video, XX/XY, at the museum for our 2002 Gestures series. The piece consisted of two screens--one displaying an old man and one a young woman--at either end of a long corridor. XX/XY played with the notion of a moment in time—two screens staring back at each other.

For the current Screenings exhibition, Summers has created Empire. Empire is a three-hour, digitally manipulated video of an elderly man lying dead on the floor in a living room. How long has the man been lying there? What is actually happening? Is anything happening at all? One might ponder these sorts of questions while standing in front of the large projection screen in the lobby of the Mattress Factory. If you choose to stick around for a few (or several) minutes, you might begin to notice something is, in fact, happening. The room begins to grow lighter, becoming more illuminated as time passes. You might begin to notice the clouds outside the window are slowly floating by. The fern in the background is ever so slightly swaying back and forth. A narrative is unfolding, and it is up to the viewer to fill in the gaps.  

Summers’ Empire is a beautiful homage to Andy Warhol’s 1964 film of the same name. I touched base with Exhibitions Manager, Owen Smith and got his feedback on the new installment. Owen mentions, “It is Summers’ own version of a homage to Warhol, but not in the traditional sense that he is trying to achieve the same things. It is totally different.” Warhol’s film is an eight-hour piece in black and white, and is a single, stationary shot of the Empire State Building. Devoid of anything personal, Warhol’s Empire presents a spectator-viewer of the exterior of an iconic building in New York City. It is a commentary on the passing of time, from dusk to dawn. Warhol lengthened the film from six to eight hours by slowing down the speed from 24 frames per second to 16 frames per second. The point of the film, according to Warhol, is to, “see time go by.” Warhol asks the viewer to be patient, and absorb the changing of time, almost in a religious, meditative state.

Summers’ Empire is also asking the same thing of his viewers; however, Summers’ video is much more personal and more narrative than Warhol’s film. We, the viewer, have a bug's-eye-view of the deceased man. We are helplessly present in the room with him, and we--the viewer--are alive. According to Summers, this could be “both a comment on mortality but also the nature of narrative films. Narrative films, by tradition, work in an artificial time bubble. They cut quickly from scene to scene, and jump from day to day. ‘Boring’ unimportant parts are removed.” Empire is not one of these narrative films. It does not run on its own fictional clock, but runs in the same real time that the viewer experiences. Summers wants the viewer to feel time.

Steven Summers’ Empire will be screening in the lobby of the Mattress Factory during regular museum hours until April 11, 2013. Come by and check it out for yourself!

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