Pat Warner at Beckstrand Gallery
by Suvan Geer
Essay on "Enter, Walk, Listen"
at the Beckstrand Gallery, Palos Verdes Art Center
The labyrinth is then a symbol of life itself-the Dream in which we live, with its unpredictable turns. In Hindu and Buddhist outlooks, life is maya, illusion, a constructed dream-our cortical awareness, consciousness, or construction of reality…
---Alan Bleakley, Fruits of the Moon Tree: The medicine Wheel and Transpersonal Psychology
Labyrinths are corridors meant to be walked, and in them a journey has meaning. It is this fundamental, but very tangible truth witch animates Pat Warner's recent maze installation. Enter, Walk, Listen is spare and, in some ways, dark. It mixes a vision of ecological dread with a healthy dose of romantic appreciation for ordered nature and nostalgic tree-lined byways.
The piece hinges very subtly on the ancient mnemonic device of using the body to encourage recall. In the ages before writing was widely known, long speeches, genealogies or important events would be memorized by repeatedly walking a winding path through a temple or garden and mentally placing ordered information along the way. These spirals and walks were blank-slate storage devices made of real space, filled with all the mysterious power and importance of exact recall at a time when history and knowledge could so easily be lost.
In its repetition and uncluttered blankness Warner's spiral of eighty-five ten-foot-tall wooden tree forms winding gently in on itself is itself a refined, simplified format onto which it is easy to project all kinds of memories of tree-covered roads. Part meandering glen, part barren winter forest, the leafless carved limbs stretch out or up, exuding a strange mixture of protection and utter desolation. At the center of the sparse copse the vertical tree forms are thinner in mass, suggesting long, curving, whittled sticks or reeds drawn together in a gentle bower. They encircle a floor of pale, unsophisticated images of endangered local flora and fauna, painted on small masonite tiles by local elders and children. Walking on the small paintings at the heart of the labyrinth's sheltering wheel pointedly mixes feelings of security with a sense of transgression and vandalism. It's a duality of comfort and tension which was never as clearly distilled or as gently telegraphed by Warner's previous maze installations.
Labyrinths, like installations in general, are meant to be transgressed. In these spaces human occupation and movement engenders meaning. In the labyrinth the inward turning and puzzling-through can be loaded with psychological or spiritual significance. Theseus used the thread of Ariadne's love to stay connected and assure his return when he battled the deadly Minotaur. Early mystics walked slowly through stone and garden spiral paths learning the convoluted turns of the purifying Divine Will which ordered and toyed with their lives and enlightenment. The single rose bush growing at the heart of the sixteenth century formal garden maze was the symbolic find of a perfect, continually renewing and unfolding life mystery, with scented petals which echoed and extended the unwinding of the maze.
Installations often similarly unfold in time and space so that understanding comes via interconnected fragments by full meaning, like the full design for the labyrinth, remains elusive. Walking through an installation by Ann Hamilton is to encounter earthy remnants of daily living impregnated with language yet empty of a literal read. Robert Gober's current installation at the MOCA's Geffen Museum is a river flowing within an empty room, hidden inside an industrial building, buried within a dry, concrete city. It derives much of its emotion and meaning from the vital nesting of these urban sites.
For all its tree-lined companionship it is absence which is most strongly felt within Warner's installation. Recorded sounds of crickets and frogs emphasize the stillness and complete unnaturalness of her peeled logs reconstituted as trees, trying again to be a forest. Nature, on Warner's journey, is a pressed and dried memento that only "lives" in memory. This sense of absence, of real space emptied of life but boldly simulating it, may be the work's most haunting impression. At heart it's a cautionary environmental tale about the loneliness of our expanding cultural experience of nature mainly as a simulacrum-cement boulders in backyard "hot springs," grassy parks instead of desert sand, species vanishing into photographs. The virtual is altering the metaphor.