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Bending the Word / MATRIX 226

September 28, 2008 - February 8, 2009

Martha Colburn: Myth Labs, 2008 (still); 16mm film animation, 7 min.; courtesy of the artist.

Olivia Plender: The Medium and Daybreak, 2005; fabric and paint; 129 x 124 in.; courtesy of the artist. Photo: Sibila Savage.

Patricia Esquivias: Folklore II, 2008 (still); single-channel video, 13:33 min.; courtesy of the artist and Murray Guy, New York.

Tris Vonna-Michell: Auto-Tracking: Ongoing Segments, 2008; performance at Jan Mot; courtesy of Jan Mot, Brussels. Photo: Filip Vanzieleghem.

Download the exhibition brochure (PDF).

Each story told is an act of shaping the world. Completely fantastical narratives are obviously the invention of an imagined world, but narratives rooted in the real world are deeply subjective as well. In the omission or inclusion of various details, in the tenor of delivery, the storyteller finds his or her own reality within the larger frame of our collective reality. Bending the Word brings together four artists who actively reinterpret larger shared narratives, from ancient fables and religious texts to official histories and current events. They do so by commingling fact and fiction, recovering lost histories, inserting the deeply personal and anecdotal, connecting disparate narratives, or collapsing time and space. Their acts of storytelling run counter to dominant narratives, weaving new meanings, opening up critiques, and making space for the multivalence of individual experience.

Martha Colburn’s truly fantastical filmic collages layer found and original imagery into animations that rarely feature words, but are so densely packed with colliding and combining fragments that the narrative is advanced visually. Myth Labs (2008) marries images from biblical sources, the current war on drugs, and U.S. social history to weave a parable on poverty, vice, drug abuse, and power in contemporary society. Such psychological and moral parallels are embedded within Colburn’s canny visual parallels.

Patricia Esquivias plays with the conventions of narrative in the presentation of certain “facts.” The Folklore video series combines visual evidence, in the form of photographs, charts, and ephemera, with Esquivias’s own off-the-cuff explanatory voiceover connecting the disparate parts. The series explains aspects of Spanish culture that remain in the collective consciousness, but are not chronicled in official histories. Knitting together trivial events, presumably but not verifiably true, her narrative is nevertheless seamless, belying the flexible filter of “reality” through which any narrative is constructed.

Olivia Plender researches anomalous historical moments, producing comics, installations, performances, and videos that chronicle the intersection of social movements and individual agency. A Stellar Key to the Summerland (2008) looks at the sociological and political aspects of the Modern Spiritualist Movement in Britain and the United States. And it tells of the transgressive function of the channeling of spirits—how this mode of performative storytelling, with its implied authorial displacement, afforded women a role in speaking out for social change, when speaking in their own voices they would be silenced.

Tris Vonna-Michell’s performances capitalize on the energy of a live situation to shape each telling and retelling of a narrative. In so doing, they quite literally acknowledge the fugitive quality of the spoken word, in all its open-endedness and malleability. Works like Seizure (2003–2008) are delivered rapidly and densely, with visual aids and props, to weave intricate fusions and confusions of identity in the biographies of three postwar individuals: Reinhold Hahn, Reinhold Huhn, and Otto Hahn. Vonna-Michell’s live performances are extended through installations that combine sound, image, and object to allow visitors to guide their own alternate narration of his chosen subjects.

These kinds of pointed narratives make known the machinations of imagination and analysis, the relationships of concrete truths and abstract notions, that individuals face in making sense of the world and their place in it. The artists have something to tell us (and show us) about what we may not be seeing for ourselves, how a straight view of the world can be bent to prismatic effect. Ultimately a story lives beyond its telling, in the minds of its hearers or viewers, who carry it forward, twist and turn it, and make it something new for themselves.

Elizabeth Thomas
Phyllis Wattis MATRIX Curator

The MATRIX Program at the UC Berkeley Art Museum is made possible by a generous endowment gift from Phyllis C. Wattis.

Additional donors to the MATRIX Program include the UAM Council MATRIX Endowment, Jane and Jeffrey Green, Joachim and Nancy Bechtle, Rena Bransten, Maryellen and Frank Herringer, Noel and Penny Nellis, James Pick and Rosalyn Laudati, Barclay and Sharon Simpson, Roselyne C. Swig, Paul L. Wattis III, Penelope Cooper and Rena Rosenwasser, Paul Rickert, and other generous donors.