Emily Tanner-McLean’s installation For Those Who Have Seen the Elephant just wrapped it’s run in the Inscape Building. Used as an INS detention center until 2004, the building has since been transformed into a space for arts and culture. First, a description. …Elephant is a maze of gauzy, colorless American flags projected with looping video of a solitary moon which transforms into a fireworks display. The end of the loop is overlaid with the sounds of stressed breathing. In any other moment, it might all be “too much:” the place, the imagery, the noise. But in 2020, when to view this art installation (or any other for that matter) you have to extricate yourself from online arguments about the viability of our democracy, assume a certain level of risk from a potentially deadly virus, make an appointment so as not to overlap your visit with anyone else, and don a facial covering…this kind of heavy layering of strong symbols hits just the right note.
During the six-minute video loop, as I wander the space, my brain sifts through associations. The flags drained of color feel white-washed, their flimsiness apparent. Like the booming fireworks that “explode” in projection around me, I feel free to project my own meanings upon them. My mind plays a few bars of the National Anthem… “and the rockets red glare, the bombs bursting in air” overlayed with the line from Kendrick Lamar’s XXX. “The great American flag is wrapped and dragged with explosives,” and I think of the uses of these rectangular pieces of cloth. In the kinds of battles we waged before the digital age, flags helped soldiers identify their fellow fighters. Depending on your point of view from the battlefield, they meant either safety in numbers or near-certain death.
And then there’s the fireworks, which provide the same, almost body-level reaction. For some, their noise and color against the dark night sky is like a metaphor for the way joy seems to spontaneously erupt in your mind. And for others-soldiers and war refugees and even unsuspecting pets-they equal instant terror. In my very limited experience, the way that PTSD erupts in your consciousness is equally instantaneous, but also disorienting because it can be activated almost without context… seemingly like a lightswitch.
The main question that For Those Who Have Seen The Elephant asks is: What does it mean that our joy has to come at the expense of another’s suffering? The beauty of a billowing piece of cloth or an explosion of colored light is rife with association and history, just like the building we stand in or the ground that the building is erected on. Which brings me to Tanner-McLean’s second artwork at Inscape, which takes the form of an audio tour of the former INS building.
In this work, McLean’s voice calmly directs us through an “exercise” in experiencing the building’s early identity. She begins with an acknowledgement of the indigenous land we are standing on, and directs us to significant places and modes of looking. “Stand here,” she says. “Breathe deeply.” To paraphrase, she asks us to ‘Try to read that small didactic text from a bit too far away. Traverse the stairwell. Do it again (and again) until your body is uncomfortable. Direct your attention to the walls where immigrants wrote their names and countries of origin in black tar, a declaration of existence. Find a name and place it in the context of this sentence.’ It is an “audio tour” unlike any offered in a museum. It outsources all of the “visual” experience to the edifice, as the artist is asking the viewer to project her body into the past, into the experience of another. It’s a brief but striking work in which the artist steps back from the imposition of imagery and instead fits the existing space with a near-perfect conceptual frame.
This audio tour and For Those Who Have Seen the Elephant are two works that are not directly related in subject, but they both connect us with our bodies in a way that is essential in experiencing visual art. During this pandemic, we are hyper-aware of our bodies, each throat tickle and cough and breath and touched-surface. To use the physical medium of installation to project us into the experience of others is exactly what is needed right now…a kind of empathic inoculation against directing our gaze away from pain.