April 8-May 31, 2017
Art.i.fact, Santa Fe
“A morning glory./ Twined round the bucket:/ I will ask my neighbor for water.”
Fukuda Chiyo-ni’s famous haiku bloomed from the mists of Edo Period Japan to inspire Ilona Pachler’s solo exhibition Memory, Places and Measures (April 8-May 31, 2017). The show is installation art, with measuring devices and mirrors scattered between screen prints that feature hazy imagery of places Pachler has lived. The well in the poem becomes a metaphor for memory, and the vegetation that chokes its mouth represents the show’s central question: in the act of remembering, how do we distinguish the shining surface from the shadowy depths?
The earliest image in the screen print series shows the silhouette of a morning glory in a window. It’s drawn from photographic light studies that the artist conducted in Santa Fe, where she currently resides. Recent photography excursions to New York City, where Pachler lived for a decade, and her birthplace of Linz, Austria, pushed the project in a darker direction. Hurricane Sandy hit New York just days after Pachler wrapped her shoot in the city’s subway system. Six months following the artist’s trip to Linz, the Danube River flooded parts of the city.
Having escaped two watery plagues, Pachler wondered whether her recollections of each place still matched reality. The screen prints, which are collectively titled Elsewhere, maroon her photographs in the blurred world of uncertain memory. Images of the Danube’s troubled waters capture nonsensical reflections of the city that surrounds it. Vivid fields of color, applied to the wood and steel supports prior to the printing process, are muted beneath monochrome layers of ink. It’s as though we’re viewing Linz from the perspective of a drowning citizen.
None of the New York images appears in the exhibition, but an accompanying catalogue offers glimpses of speeding subway cars that look like submarines. Even the New Mexico images have a submerged quality to them, preserving shimmering impressions of the sun’s rays from moments that have lost definition as time churns onwards.
The show’s installation elements add yet another layer of distance. Cast glass plumb bobs dangle from the ceiling, and water gauges made from narrow strips of plexiglass line the walls. Small sculptures made with hunks of found wood have mirrors and colorful felt attached to their flat planes.
The longer we linger, the more remote and abstract these places feel.
Interacting with these instruments offers new visions of the exhibition. Peer through the translucent plumb bobs, which are a sickly ochre hue with flecks of matter suspended in them, and the images in the screen prints are further tinted and distorted. Look into the tiny mirrors to search for fragments of nearby artworks that suddenly appear much farther away. Examine the gauges and discover cloudy patterns scratched into the surfaces of the plexiglass strips, subtly distorting the walls behind them.
Each of Pachler’s aesthetic decisions—from the layered ink to the filters and reflections—progressively frays our understanding of the images that surround us. The longer we linger, the more remote and abstract these places feel. It’s an effective mechanism, though it’s difficult to draw conclusions at the end of the process. Lacking access to Pachler’s hippocampus, we’re left wondering what the artist saw in the first place. The images she chose are abstracted to begin with, and they only get muddier.
As the physical world spirals away, a strong urge to momentarily enchant the images into focus takes hold. Is this installation an allegory for memory’s decay, or macular degeneration? If Pachler could lend us a few peeks past the morning glory and into the deep well of memory that she holds in each of these places, our sense of loss as the images succumb to the visual deluge would be stronger. On the other hand, Pachler’s own memories of these familiar places may feel scrambled by the catastrophes that struck in her absence. Perhaps her sunny recollections of these cities have been overlaid by cable news images of their flooded streets. Memory has an exceedingly complicated half-life.