McNay Art Museum
Dan R. Goddard
Michele Monseau, swingsong (purplerain), 2009; digital video loop; courtesy the artist
Generally speaking, landscapes at the McNay Art Museum, like most landscapes, are anchored to the wall, their horizon lines splitting land from sky, and paralleling the floor reassuringly. Michele Monseau plays with our expectations of landscape etiquette in her video installation swingsong (purplerain). Mirror images of a reflective lake with a mountain in the background and dramatic clouds appear to dance with each other, rocking back and forth until you can feel a stomach-dropping sense of vertigo. Her landscapes suggest a systemic failure of the imagined rigidity of structure.
In her Gone Again series, Monseau focused on the slow passage of time, recording artist friends sprawled in sleeping positions in front of European monuments. In this new series, Monseau employs camera motion to undermine the monumental subject matter and change the perspective. While shooting, she moves the camera in a figure eight motion. She does not manipulate the original image in postproduction except to reconfigure it into a split-screen, single-channel dual image with the video flipped horizontally for perfect symmetry. Bouncing off the “seam” that binds these mirror images, the subjects can appear at different times to be dancing, fighting, merging, kissing or crashing into each other.
Monseau shot swingsong (purplerain) at Canyon Lake near San Antonio, though the location doesn’t matter so much as the mythic elements of water, land and sky. As the motion grows more violent and chaotic, the sense of landscape collapses and abstract forms emerge like a moving Rorschach test. A cascading soundtrack of rushing water, the artist’s humming voice and a reverberating bass provide a soothing contrast to the visual turbulence. Clouds appear to reach out from the sky with long and ghostly fingers. The intersection of earth and the firmament begins to twist into a cosmic vortex that contorts the horizon line into a spiral and briefly transforms the lake into a mountain. Gradually, the motion slows and the world comes to rest as the horizon line is restored. Short but intense, swingsong (purplerain) shakes up our perceptions of reality by upsetting our ho-hum preconceptions about landscape.
Preceding and ending the video are slivers of purple rain, sparkling colored light streams caused by lens distortion that effectively frame the agitation of the video, providing a sense of calmness like curtains opening and closing on a fairy-tale cartoon. Monseau compares the work to a “moving painting,” though the rise and fall of the action provides a more or less conventional storyline with a beginning, middle and end. Monseau uses video to make a traditional image behave more dynamically, violating the taboos of realistic video shooting to create a more complex visual metaphor. The multi-channel soundtrack underscores pent-up suspense, building to the cathartic release we expect from traditional storytelling, though the narrative elements are primarily visual and emotional.
Dan R. Goddard is a writer living in San Antonio.