Peter Sarkisian: Dusted
Curators, critics, and cultural commentators have noted recently that there seems to be a change underway in the art world. Sincerity has begun to displace irony, emotional content figures more prominently, and larger spiritual and philosophical concerns have, to some degree, replaced the identity and body politics of the recent past. How much of this shift is due to millennial trepidation? How much can be attributed to the tragic events of 9/11? It is doubtful that we can adequately answer these questions at present. Perhaps in the upcoming years we can assess the situation more objectively, then postulate and debate what will surely be many convincing theories. What we do know now is that our world has dramatically changed and that there is no going back. As a result, we find ourselves looking at things in a different way--how could we not? It is not surprising, in fact it seems perfectly logical, that many artists with a powerful sense of conviction and integrity are seeking and using new images, metaphors, and ideas to explore the infinite depths of humanity. These artists are earnestly mapping the psychic terrain that connects us as human beings across time and place. And we, as viewers, cannot help but respond with a newfound perspective.
Peter Sarkisian has tackled some of the most essential questions facing human beings. Sarkisian is known for his three-dimensional sensory “environments” that combine sound, image, and form to create an alternate reality where the mind is free to believe the impossible. More than mere video wizardry and technical theatrics, Sarkisian’s installations are also intelligent and deeply moving explorations of the primal states of being and the human condition. Dusted, widely recognized as Sarkisian’s breakthrough piece, exemplifies the artist’s ability to simultaneously dazzle our eyes with breathless effects and rouse our emotions with complex metaphorical content.
A marriage of sculpture and cinema, Dusted is the magical outcome of Sarkisian’s dissatisfaction with the traditional filmmaking techniques and formats he studied in film school. Convinced that the frame (i.e. the monitor or screen) hindered intense emotional engagement, Sarkisian began experimenting in 1994 with projecting two-dimensional video images onto three-dimensional objects and adding sound to create experiential environments in which images with “real presence” shared physical space with the viewer. The artist explains, “The frame is the big whistle blower of video. What I try to do is embody the image through the union of projection and form, so that it is brought as close to being as possible; so that it starts to operate with real presence.”[i] Sarkisian’s video images, no longer functioning as purely referenced imagery and freed from the narrative structure of film, exist fully and independently in the present, so seamlessly integrated within the viewing space that they seem to come alive before our very eyes. Rarely has watching video been such an extraordinary sensory experience.
Strikingly simple yet visually and emotionally arresting, Dusted elicits a highly personal response. Like Sarkisian’s other installations, it requires a dark and quiet room where viewers can escape external distractions and enter a private, dreamlike state. It is within this carefully controlled environment that a nearly three-foot white cube (notably reminiscent of Donald Judd’s Minimalist sculptures) emerges out of the darkness and is transformed into a luminous, futuristic cell, and we are immediately transfixed. As the piece’s twelve-minute cycle starts, the cube turns black and a faint female voice begins to intone a litany of names, setting a tone of hushed solemnity. Glowing light gradually emanates from within the cube as smudges appear on its sooty interior surfaces, slowly multiplying until glimpses of movement and patches of flesh are visible. After several minutes, we are able to discern the naked bodies of an imprisoned man and woman, crawling around and on top of each other, tentatively exploring the confines of the claustrophobic, womb-like space. The stark opacity of the cube slowly yields to amniotic transparency as their squirming bodies brush away the black tarnish, revealing a murky interior blurred by moving flesh. The cycle comes to a close only when the soot has been almost completely transferred to the bodies inside—“dusting” their skin in direct proportion to the clearing of the cube—and the image vanishes, returning the cube to its original, pristine state, and awakening us from this ineffable dream.
Dusted probes the deepest parts of the collective human psyche, touching upon issues of mortality and survival. According to Sarkisian, the piece is about “balance—the equal and opposite relationship between clarity and obscurity, growth and decay, life and death.”[ii] It is precisely its multiple and contradictory readings that give Dusted such strength, empowering viewers to forge individuated interpretations. For some, Dusted may refer to the beginnings of life and evolution with its raptly oblivious and nearly genderless figures about to materialize out of the primordial soup or on the verge of hatching into existence. For others, the cube suggests a womb in which the embryonic figures are incubating, an especially plausible interpretation given the whispering of first names on the audio track. While soothing and reassuring to some, the listing of names can also elicit feelings of pain and sorrow. Thoughts of war, genocide, and disease might come to mind. It is indeed difficult to hear the soundtrack and not think of a memorial reading of names, reminding us of humanity’s capacity to inflict terror, suffering, and death.
In the aftermath of 9/11, Dusted takes on renewed relevance and meaning—its images disturbingly evocative of the broken and blackened bodies imprisoned inside the fallen towers and its soundtrack eerily reminiscent of the reading of names on the anniversary of that tragic day. That Dusted was created years before these events occurred attests to its power to transcend a particular time and place, of its universal significance, and of our newfound perspective. In its poetic union of metaphor and reality to touch upon the realm of philosophy, Dusted prefigures later works like Hover (1999) and Strand (2001), which can also be viewed as primal allegories rich with archetypal imagery. Hover, for example, explores the timeless and special bond between mother and child, and Strand intimates the fleeting moments of existence and the passing of life.
Philosophical and spiritual connections are Sarkisian’s foremost concerns. Like the video pioneers Bill Viola, Gary Hill, and Tony Oursler before him, Sarkisian has mined our culture’s high-tech surface in search of humanity. It is no small wonder that Sarkisian chose video as his medium for he is part of the MTV generation. Video, however, is nothing more than a tool for Sarkisian, the technological means to a conceptual end. As he states, “I’m trying to use video in a way which transcends ‘video’ because the technology really doesn’t hold much interest for me in and of itself. I want to draw attention away from the fact that I’m using technology and focus it on the concepts specific to each piece—because those ideas are where all the value is. We’re all so familiar with the video apparatus that it’s really no more exceptional than, say a microwave oven—or a pair of shoes. So where’s the topical interest? I believe it’s in the idea being conveyed—the human ideas which have little or nothing to do with the technology being used.”[iii] And it is precisely those ideas that continue to reverberate within us and leave us spellbound long after the projectors have shut down and the gallery goes dark.
...Elizabeth Dunbar, curator at the Ulrich Museum
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[i] Quoted in Andrea K. Scott, “Peter Sarkisian,” tema celeste contemporary art (May-June 2001), p. 86.
[ii] Quoted in Valerie Loupe Olsen, Peter Sarkisian: Dusted (Houston: The Glassell School of Art of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 2002), p. 9.
[iii] Quoted in Devon Dikeou, “A Conversation with Peter Sarkisian; I-20,” Zingmagazine, 2 (winter 1999), p. 199.