Ephemerality is shocking - whether we meet it unembellished in the clear moment of a human death or happen upon it buried deep within the matrix of a 21st century work of art. When, in the complexities of our daily lives, we are reminded of our links with the ephemeral, it is as if, suddenly and unwittingly, we have been transported to the wide edge of life - a psychological terrain in which we encounter phenomena that are “within the range of our experience and beyond the range of our imaginations.”1  We sense the ephemeral then, if only briefly, as a reflection of something essential within us, but few of us can quite grasp its full meaning or wholly integrate its remarkable consequences. 

The ephemeral is a metaphoric “multitude of threads” inextricably woven throughout the cultural rituals and artistic endeavors of the human world - ancient and modern. It is impossible to extract those threads and discuss them as lone entities, as independent agents with explicable force and discernible impact. Like the smallest of subatomic particles or the planets in tiny solar systems far away, the presence of the ephemeral in our lives can only be measured, inferentially, by our recognition of its effect on the elements around it. 

As audience, we recognize its impact as we watch the painstaking reconstruction of ancient Buddhist sand paintings by contemporary monks, only to witness the total destruction of this same sand painting at the ritual’s end.  It is an ancient practice designed to enlist the monks, and the witnesses, in the visceral knowledge of the transient reality of human existence. 

As a signifier of societal status, we meet it in the murals created by West African women in post-harvest, winter rituals of celebration. Here, in a culture where men work in the most durable of materials - ivory, bronze, wood, weaving, beadwork, even embroidery - and export their creations to western European museums, the women work communally to create murals with mud, often “applied by hand or with the simplest implements on earthen walls.”2  It is an “art that washes away.”3  

In an all-too-brief artistic life that unexpectedly embraced, in its conceptual totality, the act of “succumbing to forces beyond his control,4 ” we meet the ephemeral in the life’s work of Bas Jan Ader. For five years, he created performance works about, and involving, falling.“He filmed himself falling out a tree, falling off his house, riding his bike into a Dutch canal, falling ‘on the way to a new Neo-Plasticism,’ and executing a ‘broken geometric fall.’ He took a picture of himself in front of a forest, standing and then lying down among fallen trees.”5 He, himself, equated falling with failing. In 1975, at the age of thirty-three, he set sail from Cape Cod in a twelve foot dinghy, attempting to sail to England solo in completion of the second part of a three part performance work entitled In Search of the Miraculous.  His dinghy was discovered nine months later, bobbing, half-submerged off the Irish coastline. He is presumed dead.  

We recognize the ephemeral as we learn that countless national museums around the world are not immortal repositories of the finest artistic treasures of our respective cultures. Art historical scholars can confirm the real truth - the final destruction of more than 90 percent of the artworks ever made in all human history with a less than one percent survival rate for works made in the 20th century 6  (this statistic holds true for the wealthy western cultures, countries with fewer resources must forfeit a great deal more of their cultural treasure to nature and to unalterable circumstance). 

And, not least of all, the greatest majority of artists, in any time period, function as foot soldiers in the cultural armies of their day - their anonymity a foregone conclusion in their own lifetime, the destruction and loss of their life’s work almost assured.  In the face of a common societal conceit, that artists’ creative motivations are subconsciously fueled by a primordial drive for immortality, it remains true that the work of cultural production proffers no safeguard against an ultimate and complete disappearance. 

The artists whose works were chosen for this exhibition entitled, Ephemeral, have each found themselves profoundly engaged with the ephemeral - by circumstance or by choice. They continue a century-long tradition (rooted in the innovation of Dada performances) of choosing the ephemeral, not as a side element in their work, but as a main subject.  And though the category descriptions used to define their investigations will sometimes invoke the most ancient of human inquiries, they will also reveal some new synergies of meaning specific to the 21st century. The traces left by their inquiring passage will only expand further upon the potential revelations of the ephemeral, in the arts (and otherwise), for all of us. 

Un Making & Elective Destruction

 “Things that end must be attended to because in disappearance is a different kind of knowledge.

Un Making is not destruction, it is a creation of a different sort.”

 In this excerpt from her artist’s statement, Suvan Geer introduces us to her vision of “un making”.  Many artists in the show have chosen to use the device of “un making” or “elective destruction” as a means of creating individual “portraits” of the ephemeral - reflective of its manifestations in our own lives. Four of these six artists enlist their audience directly in the “disappearance” of their pieces. In this way, if we choose to participate, we feel our complicity in the “death” of works, in their transformation, in their last dissemination.

 With her give-away pieces, Susanne Cockrell  is able to offer to her audience works of art “...that dismantle themselves, that offer a transaction and that are free.... “  In this way, she builds a relationship with her audience - knitting their thoughts into small pieces of tight fabric or sharing images of the ordinary events of her life in short, beautifully mounted pieces of film - each of these activities a tangible materialization of an ephemeral event. 

 An opening night performance by Suvan Geer on the Kellogg Gallery’s exterior patio will leave no such “conventional” evidence of its occurrence. With its performative traces positioned so that we must either choose to disseminate them with our feet (post-performance) or step gingerly away from them and around, Geer will divide us into those who are willing, those who are unwilling, and those who are, perhaps, unable to participate in its final demise. While, in an adept shift of materials but not of focus, Geer undertakes a discussion of the same “un making”  in her interior installation entitled Written in Water. Here, a book sits on the floor between two fans while the fans’ wind, lightly but fluidly, pushes and presses the book’s pages back and forth before us. Images of real water are projected onto the flipping pages, as are excerpted dialogues (from Alice in Wonderland) referring to “things disappearing.”  These texts are “unwritten” as we watch - by hands in motion that cover and then smear them (one word at a time or in whole sentences), by the slow and varied visual dissolution of their specter on the page.  In the words of the artist, the piece is an exploration of “the forgetting that in time unmakes us all.”  

 In a similar recreation of the workings of the human mind, B. Gray hopes to enlist us in a vertigo-producing experience of what she believes are the “most ephemeral of events...those neuronal flashes that constitute consciousness....”  On her website memorial to family long dead, B. Gray invites us to visit memories of the deceased by browsing photographs of mementos and keepsakes, personal photographs and letters from their lives. It is only when we are deep within the work, attempting to scroll back and revisit some evocative element or reclaim a forgotten piece of factual information, that we discover that there is no way back, our browsing trail has been expunged by the program. By creating a work that structurally defies our expectations, Gray hopes to illuminate the nature of memory - with its inevitable loss and its consistent imperfections - while plunging us deep inside an experience of our own inevitable disappearance.

 The same gritty truths of disappearance are the uncompromising aim of  Brian Kelly Hahn’s Forgetting Machine.  It is a finely-tuned conceptual instrument  built to mercilessly destroy the most precious and delicate records of family histories. Anyone who grew up in the 1950’s remembers the fear and excitement that one felt when viewing super 8 imagery of family life by projector. Inevitably, the film would catch and the tiny screen would fill with the horrifying image of film melting as one watched.  It is exactly Hahn’s point that  “ is unique in that it can only be viewed through a process that is inherently self-destructive. Dust, scratches and lost frames are commonplace.”   His Forgetting Machine forces us to face  “the loss of memories, history, and human existence...” that occur when films such as these become “ ubiquitous garage sale throw-aways,” and we find that we have made them ”ephemeral by choice.”

 The works of Deidre Pierce Weiland & James Soe Nyun, do not demand the audience’s active participation in the “elective destruction” of the work, rather, the “destruction” is now imbedded within the artist’s actual working processes. Deidre Pierce Weiland imprints imagery of female family members onto previously woven cloth (still entwined within their looms). She then unravels those same fabrics, thread by thread, and reweaves them in an altered order. The random reweaving process effectively reforms the photographic images. For the viewer, edges of faces and clothing seem ragged and blurred, facial features are displaced into parts but not wholly dissolved, clothing patterns are discernible but fragmented. It is the hope of the artist, that each final piece will become an effective visual simulation of “...the alterations of memory that occur with the passage of time....”

 The same device of  an “imbedded destruction” poses wholly different questions for us in the works and photographic processes of artist, James Soe Nyun. His pseudo-scientific photographic documents seem, suddenly, too common. They are displaced here, cast into an artistic context in which the willful destruction of plant specimens by the photographer seems eerily apparent.  His imagery forces us to examine “...the position of nature within the human world...” and, specifically, the human world of science. We wonder - How many fig leaves have been burned for one image? What will happen to that image and who will benefit from its destruction? How many flowers were dissected into minute parts before those same parts created the “correct” look on his page?  He wishes us to consider if it could be true “...that some sort of inequality of power or status can leave something open to being made ephemeral faster.”  Are we not all culpable in the end for the sacrifices made in the name of knowledge?


Deep Anonymity
(Mandelbaum, Broussard, Ruiz, Barber)

 As the world becomes more and more populous and our urban centers become economic meccas, the facts of our deep anonymity in the midst of the crowd become more and more palpable. Though the internet unites (some of us) in an instant exchange of quips and conversation, still the city’s streets feel alien and devoid of human warmth.

 Artists Audrey Mandelbaum and Mathew Broussard both pursue representations of the anonymous masses through markedly dissimilar means. The overwhelming sense of separation and distance that fills our urban landscapes is given full expression in the intricate and precise installation by Mandelbaum. A spelunker of the urban street, Mandelbaum has documented people of all types, shapes and sizes and, through her careful and precise extraction of their forms from her film, provides us with a facsimile (in reduced scale) of our urban experience within the gallery space itself .  Because she has paid such careful attention to detail, we find ourselves, simultaneously, wandering through the multitude of nameless faces while still recognizing the occasional individual who enlists our sympathy, our rage, our fascination, our fear. In these urban worlds, our experiences have no evidence; we come and go from one another in a random state of appearance and disappearance.

 In his piece entitled, Navvy, Broussard undertakes a representation of the anonymous contribution of two generations of poor English men to the construction of the canals and, then, the  construction of the railroads that made those same canals obsolete. It is his premise that these men, who gave their lives for the canals and then found their hard work supplanted so quickly, stand for the great anonymity of sacrifice rampant in our world. The anonymous are devoured by the great deeds of their days, consigned to obscurity by “empirial destiny.” In his commanding floor sculpture, Broussard suspends fragile onion skins above white limestone “canals” (rough hewn in the 19th century style and filled with water) in a metaphoric offering of remembrance to these invisible men.

 Considering similar issues of anonymity and history, David Thomas Ruiz’s series of self-portraits address the concerns of the self-aware individual living through the profound historical events of our days. In these tiny portraits, Ruiz appears as a kind of “straight man” to history, situating himself blandly within the frame of each of his three canvases - juxtaposed against a bomb’s mushroom cloud in Self-Portrait with Hydrogen Bomb Explosion, with a metaphoric “death”  Self-Portrait with Skeleton  as the “invisible portraitist” of the artistic bright lights of his century  in The Flaying of Marsyas. In these paintings, he is the quintessential “anonymous man” who makes no real peace with this same anonymity. He rallies his artistic might against the forces of an eminent historical obscurity and offers up these small documents of his revolts.

 Obscurity holds no such insult for Kireilyn Barber who creates a brief, but elegant, photographic soliloquy of childhood in her piece entitled Hands with Hair. These four sequential images of a young girl brushing her hair evoke thoughts of the “mundane, yet poetic...moments of private ritual” in our lives and in the lives of those we love.  Documentation of such “meaningless” acts reminds us that beauty obscured in the guise of “the ordinary” is beauty all the same.


Ordinary Death
(Potvin, Selby, Di Salvo)

 No death can truly be ordinary.  For those closest to the dead, the sharply-focused memories of their loved one’s final passage - with all its courage, indignities, and blessings - wear scarred pathways through their hearts and psyches.  And when we grieve so wholly, we can’t help but wonder, irrationally, why the world is not grieving with us. Only the most famous and infamous come to know, in their aftermath, a great and commensurate public grief.  No death can truly be ordinary though sometimes, truly, the failure of the earth to stop turning seems an insult to our loss.  For three artists in the show, the facts of ephemerality find precedence over any supposition or theory.

 Bodily death - the withering of our corporeal self - is the straight forward focus of Kimberly Potvin’s 20 Notches. Here, twenty vinyl cast areolas attached to the wall by large fish hooks, crumble, curl and deteriorate over the course of the exhibition. The deterioration of the parts is predicted by Potvin’s choice of fragile casting materials. It is a plain representation of an eminent physical demise promised to each of us.

 In their own ways, Judith Selby and Denise Di Salvo offer us works that promise a kind of salvation from “ordinary” death through an active self-expression. Struck by the emptiness she felt after reading her good friend’s obituary in the local newspaper, Selby, in an act seemingly aimed at the redemption of the dead through an artistic honoring of their lives, began a daily act (for one year) of cutting each obituary from the newspaper and taping them together into a streaming cascade of decontextualized language. The ritual undertaking of the production of this monument to the anonymous has helped her to address the impossibility of ever capturing the vibrancy of a spirit in the mere recitation of their life’s facts. 

 In her multi-paneled literary and photographic piece entitled, All My Dead Are At Costco,

 Di Salvo shares with us her uncompromising and heartfelt vision of the lives and deaths of those closest to her (a sister, her father, her mother, her dog, a stray bird).  Her text, inked into the surface of the panels with a kind of draftsman’s mark-making quality, is interspersed with deceptively simple, but symbolically resonant, black and white photographs that quietly enhance the reader’s journey through her very personal narrative. The graphic details of these “ordinary” deaths and the real grief experienced by the author find some redemption in the brilliant central metaphor of her story alluded to by her title - that cameras can steal the spirits of their sitters, as can Costco, and that, in her worst moments of heart-rendering loss, she can journey there to speak with them. The uncompromising nature of death itself, although, never finds resolution in her story (as it well could not) but still we are left with a need to express our own gratitude to her for her candor, her eloquence, and her clear capacity to share her vision of love without restraint.


Process as Salvation
(Malerich, Derr, Rodgers)

 Repetition has long served as a vehicle of spiritual transcendence, as have bare-boned acts of righteous self-discipline. Three artists in the show find some form of “salvation” or freedom in the disciplined and repetitive processes required by their work  (though only one of them ever alludes specifically to his aspirations for a greater relationship with God, as a specific entity, through his artistic practice.)

 For Lee Malerich, redemption (in the face of a diagnosis of cancer now in remission) is a matter of the daily practice of embroidery. A self-proclaimed “zealot” of the art form, she works every day at “breakneck speed,” stitching the “the energy of my life in these painstaking narratives. “ In her small, colorful, and alluring embroideries, she considers the realities of recovering from colon cancer - chronicling her real physical scars and the scars of her “friends in illness”. The obscured world of the “terminally” ill is laid bare in her work. It is a resilient world of clarity of focus and celebration, a world where notions of the ephemeral have been transcended, where great consideration is given to the meaning of an expanded “continuum,” i.e. the evident world that exists beyond the limitations of the body.

 In his artist statement, Robert Ladislas Derr proffers these sentiments that “... belief in God will bring immorality... Immortality can be attained through a full understanding of one’s self, which only comes from discipline. To have discipline, one must free themselves from their senses....”  In his brief but compelling video (an apparent document from a private performance), Derr allows us to witness the immediacy of his own struggle with this same demanding belief.  Video affords the viewer a sense of real immediacy in relation to his performance. We are privileged to watch as Derr (only his head visible in the monitor), pelted by tennis balls covered in blue paint, struggles against a flood of emotions to maintain the discipline that he believes will elevate him to a final immortality.  In his highly emotive face we read indignity, disbelief, anger, contained rage, displeasure, sadness, pain, fear,trembling, insult, degradation, the desire to weep, efforts to sustain himself, questions as to why he invented this action, peace when it is over. For him, a release from “ephemerality” comes only through discipline. By revealing his struggle to achieve such a high aim, Derr reaffirms the imperfections that constitutes at least half of our human conundrum - to strive for transcendence and yet always to remain earthbound.

 Music, by definition, is ephemeral as it must be performed to be “viewed,” and each performance is, consequently, unique.  As a composer, repetitive practice creates a particular kind of musical freedom for Lloyd Rodgers who dedicated himself to writing a new composition each day for an entire year last December 28th. His 300+ compositional score sheets, adhered to the gallery walls, connote the beauty of a visceral sanskrit, sometimes the angry scratches of inky bird feet or the roar of complete silence. The daily practice of composing anchors Rodgers’ muse; his repetitive acts of discipline yielding consistently surprising results.


Bodies & Sense
(Berk, Mushkin)

 As citizens of the modern world, our culture over-emphasizes our visual sense. It is easy to forget that we are creatures of many senses and that, much to our own surprise, we use all of our senses every day to evaluate our safety, our sense of location & placement, our expectations as to the distance of objects, et cetera. Barbara Berk’s piece entitled, Dog Dreams, begins to subliminally remind us of the strength of our forgotten sensory skills, though in a slightly devious manner. Playing off the idea of the ephemeral as content, Berk draws us into her sound installation with the everyday noises of dogs at play with a ball. We hear the ball land and bounce against imagined walls. We unwittingly begin to develop our own sense of the construction of the sound-defined space, but Berk defies our sensibilities by distorting the auditory description of space, thus sending our senses on a wild goose chase.

 The world of bodies and sense takes on a different meaning for Hillary Mushkin, who has spent a good deal of her artistic career defining cultural biases by tracking interpretations of ambiguous imagery. In her piece entitled, Sounds Unseen, she works with ambiguities again but with a poetic intent.  Using the “ordinary” as visual content, she juxtaposes phrases with ambiguous images of the every day in a effort to redefine a fine white thumbnail as “thumb moon rising” or to help us to hear the “tingle of blood as one’s foot falls asleep.” With these simple sensorial juxtapositions, Mushkin hopes to help us to hear and see, once again, the profound meaning in each fleeting action and moment.


Emotive Mind

 Laurel Beckmann’s piece is a “multi-phased visual work” designed to employ and investigate the idea of “morphic resonance.”   By her definition, morphic resonance “ a theory utilized in biology, mathematics, and parapsychology. Its broad implications attempt to explain why, in the absence of material proof, forms and knowledge suddenly appear.” For Ms. Beckmann, whose former work has focussed on the “tenuous certainty of material and communication,” investigations into the ephemeral constitute an effort to strip back the illusionistic surface of staid realities to reveal the deepest inner workings of knowledge, intelligence, perception, and understanding in patterns of development not yet concretized by science or art.


(Goodfriend, Keller)

Perhaps there is no better artistic antidote for the challenges presented by the realities of the ephemeral than the investigation of immortality. In her body of work targeted at the creation of replacement parts for intimate family and friends presently in need of physical assistance, Annette Goodfriend shoulders the artistic job of “alchemical medicine” woman - creating a small silver kidney (in effigy) “for Chad” to serve him while he waits for a real replacement  or an “ear for Emily” who recently went deaf. Simultaneously, she gathers and honors the detritus of locally deceased animals offered to her by her willing cats in her series entitled Gifts from the Cats.  For the audience viewing the two series together, her work appears as a merry-go-round of organ swapping, a conceptually complete circle of life and death that addresses every complex level of the ephemeral and yet provides no over-simplified “answers” to the real dilemmas it presents. 

 For Rob Keller, ephemerality is an every day event in his job as a veterinarian’s assistant. Several years ago he found himself succumbing to a kind of numbness in the face of the many animal deaths he’d witnessed. As an antedote to this numbness,  Keller adopted and then adapted, Egyptian mummification practices (on his own time) and began to painstakingly learn to embalm animals. For him, the identity of the animal, their potential needs and wants in the afterlife, are as important to him now as they were to the ancient Egyptians and their dead.  In his own words, “I am trying to concentrate less on the mummy as an object and focus more on the process of researching each animal...”  In a diversion from traditional Egyptian methods, Keller wraps the items the animals will need within their body cavities and tries to display them in a habitat common to their wilder brothers or in a characteristic pose. In this way, he hopes to honor and respect them, not only in their lives but, also, in their afterlife.

  The ephemeral in our individual lives exerts a force on us equivalent to that exerted on each planet in our solar system by a magnificent sun.  By virtue of its sheer centrality in our lives, we cannot live in ignorance or denial of the impact of such an essential force.  Its power has shaped the exact profile of what we mean when we say that we are “human.”  Wisdom and knowledge, in the face of ephemerality, can only come from brave investigations of its interior and its edges.  The twenty-one artists who have found their work included in this show have surely exemplified Emile Zola’s statement that an artist’s job is to “live out loud.” The eloquence of their “speaking” and the veracity of their journeys makes a profound contribution to a hard-won common wisdom.  Each viewer’s conclusions, in light of such offerings, must surely be their own.

  1. Isak Dinesen, Out of Africa (New York: Random House, 1961), 370.
  2. Jean Crichton, “Recording the Ephemeral,” review of The Art of West African Women, by Margaret Courtney-Clarke, Publisher’s Weekly, 20 July 1990, 34.
  3. Ibid., 34.
  4. Cindy Loehr, “Bas Jan Ader,” New Art Examiner, March 2000, 42.
  5. Ibid., 42.
  6. Gary Schwartz, “Ars Morendi,” Art in America, November 1996, 72-75.