The Memory Game

United Catalysts is is part of a lineage that doesn’t have much use for a boundary between art and life.  They sympathize with the assessment of a professor who suggested that they were magicians posing as fine artists.  That implication of subversion points to a tradition of trickster characters that have expanded art’s territory in the last century.  There is Hugo Ball as the Magical Bishop and the collaborative, self-imploding Cabaret Voltaire.  The artist-magician was an emergent force in the 60s and 70s, visible in the practices of Yayoi Kusama, David Hammons, Jimmie Durham, Joseph Beuys, and in that of the comical-mystical-entropist, Robert Smithson.  More recently, I think of Los Angeles based artist Joel Tauber in his quests for flight, ritual, and in his ongoing love affair with a sycamore in the Rose Bowl parking lot.  I also think of the simple machines constructed by Olafur Eliasson and his workshop, throwing into focus our perceptual apparatuses, the built-in magic tricks performed continuously by our own bodies.  Like these artists, United Catalysts work in a broad range of media, from sculpture to performance, print and photography to installation.  Taking a cue from Beuys, their work is Social Sculpture: characterized by an emphasis on process and discussion, on collaboration and exchange.

The broad, low-ceilinged space that The Memory Game was installed in was lit to create a warm, dusky ambience - almost dark, but still glowing.  In the middle of the floor was a field tent, like one that might have been used by a 19th-century naturalist or surveyor.  It was reminiscent of tents in the background of Brady Company photographs of the Civil War.  It looked machine made—cotton duck, grommets and all—it had the nonchalance of the standard issue.  Talking with the artists later, I learned that, contrary to appearances, but consistent with their practice, was their own meticulous construction. 

The space of the gallery surrounding the tent was empty, except for a single cluster of plant matter.  I know that scent (particularly that resinous pungency characteristic of the plants of California) was a key aspect of the installation, but when I visited, a month into the exhibition, that element had faded.  The cluster was made of the branches of different plants, tied together and placed on the ground, about ten feet to the side of the entrance of the tent. Part tumbleweed, part ceremonial smudge, this little concentration of hippie vibration was delivered with the restraint of a minimalist sculpture.  It registered to me as a homeopathic, or biodynamic trace (like the single bull horn packed with manure and strategically buried, that is potent enough to fertilize an entire farm).  So, a small cluster of plant matter to indicate a vast space, and on that plain, a shelter.  These are metaphors for existence:  the portable, intimate, temporary spaces of our bodies on a field of consciousness, of space and time.  The tent is constructed with two layers:  the outer layer presents a larger silhouette; the interior is snugger, a different form.  You enter the tent, as usual, through a slit in the fabric.  The reference to the supine female form seems unavoidable:  architecture as reconstructed womb. 

This installation grew out of an earlier project in which the artists crafted a memory game, the kind that many of us played as children:  put all the patterned cardboard tiles face down on the floor, turn one over and try to remember where you last saw its twin.  Inside the tent, the game aspect was absorbed into the functions of two silent, shuffling projectors, continuously producing new pairs of images.  The metaphorical aspects carry through easily here:  the temporary shelter of the body housing endless, slipping projections of memory.  These projectors are usually failing, if we are going by the traditional rules of matching.  Yet, in their failure, the motive of the old memory game falls away and in its place is a parade of asymmetrical likenesses.

The images are transparent and layered.  A basic formula is usually employed:  people are juxtaposed with landscape or skyscape.  Individuals, sometimes alone, often in groups, often posed, merge with photographs of cloud filled skies, sunsets, and reflections.  Thus, the temporary, the fleeting, the human, is layered with elements that are in constant flux, yet closer to an eternal:  light, atmosphere, water.  A puddle in a gravelly pothole reflects clouds and sharp black branches and makes something less solid of figures of men in dark suits and bow ties standing around a coffin piled with garlands of flowers.  A photograph provides an illusion of that break into the eternal – it displays a degree of fixity as we age.  Thus, the peculiar relationship we have to the camera – we are generally better at photographing sunsets than we are at watching them.  A photograph is an attempt to hold on to something moving past.  The camera is perhaps the iconic form of our attempts to stop time, to hold on, to save something for later, a sort of mechanization of the desire to resist our ephemeral state.  The composite images are simple and beautiful.  They aren’t forcing anything.  They aren’t shy of the sentimental territory, or even the clichéd aspect of that territory, of human time layered with planetary time.  The fact that it is a common conception – the brevity of human life, and the meaning we look for in things that will survive us – seems to be central to their interest in it.  The interest here is not invention, but reflection.

The photographs are drawn from the family albums of the two artists.  Yet, the pictures seem like public domain, they are a kind of American pop culture.  A family photo has the ability to be completely specific, and at the same time, completely common, a type.  It doesn’t obscure the personal, I thought about Garrison and Radosevich’s families as the pictures appeared and disappeared, but I also thought about family in general.  The installation emphasizes the way that individual experience is inevitably drawn with the patterns of a social fabric.

The Memory Game marks the end of a seven-year cycle that began with their first collaboration:  the purification of the art department at CSU Long Beach.  I happened to be there at the time and I have fuzzy memories of medicine-show-style posters announcing a ritual, and the ritual itself, the operation of their peculiarly purposeful and industrial purification machine.  Their ambition to purify demanded a holy foolhardiness, and I recall being struck by the metamorphic shift in these two individuals, now wholly committed to their project, and driven by a beautiful and silly seriousness.  The Memory Game can be catalogued as a kind of project the duo engage in periodically:  quieter, less performative, more reflective, a cyclical replenishing of energies.  -- Dana Doyle