Artist and filmmaker Lenore Malen uses the lens of history and humor to examine utopian longings and the sciences and technologies that inform them. Her most recent project “Scenes From Paradise” includes a 3-channel video installation and a movie filmed on a sheep farm in Columbia County, NY.
Malen is a Guggenheim Fellow and the recipient of NYFA and NYSCA grants in interdisciplinary Art. Her work has been shown at Tufts University, Wesleyan University, The Slought Foundation, The Cue Art Foundation, Film Columbia, (Chatham, NY) and the Mediations Biennale in Poznan, Poland, among other venues.
A clip from her work in progress “Scenes From Paradise” can be seen here. Below is an excerpt from the Romanov Grave Blog post about “Scenes From Paradise.” In summer 2016 selections from Scenes from Paradise will be performed at Art Omi in Ghent NY.
New York City, Central Park. Four animals, a horse, a goat, a lion and perhaps a Dalmatian, make their way as a team, seeming to rappel without ropes, across a rocky outcrop of 450 million year old schist rock. The blocking of the figures evokes the dance of death scene from Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. The pinstripe skyscrapers in rear bring to mind Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. The setting, Central Park, deploys, tragically, Olmsted’s culture performed as nature. We would do well to remember that Bergman staged his opus as a chess game between a returning crusader and the figure of Death as the bubonic plague ravaged Europe; that Hitchcock invented for his film a compass point that simply does not exist, while, with Olmstead, nature is nothing more than an echo of an anthropomorphized projection. As we sift and connect these dots, we all know this will not turn out well. An end game is in at hand.
Approached in media res in the studio this is an initial take on Lenore Malen’s current project, a multi layered and multi part film project titled Scenes From Paradise. Screened for us by the artist in her studio, provisionally arranged as a three-monitor installation, the work unconsciously, unknowingly, came to resemble the three altars of a place of Catholic worship. (Maybe prayer can save us, but we have our doubts.) The entire project has evolved over the past few years out of Malen’s chance discovery, as she browsed the web, of a medieval manuscript illumination. The artist of that illumination, The Maître Francois, worked in the service of The Duke of Nemours, producing the rarified knowledge of the less literate, but in its own way knowledge-filled, 15th century.
The Illumination Francois produced inscribed knowledge for his patron with a tale of beginnings. It reveals autochthonous creatures, four humans and six other animals, birthed from the substance of the earth itself. And though the landscape looks rather prim one must suppose that this is the famous primordial muck from which animal life comes into being. That there is no immediate or apparent hand of God visible in the image seems important, even though one’s atheistic joy must be tempered somewhat by the recognition that in the next “frame” the devil is present, thus implying his manicheistic opposite. Nonetheless the democratic (sic) emerging of all the animals, human and non human, from the muck does allow one to ponder in whose image is whom being made and for that matter, by whom, in this pristine paradise. In Malen’s project she acknowledges that the narrative destination is the time before The Maître Francois’ illumination, the time before Eden. Malen will, in Scenes from Paradise, narratively, return Adam, Eve and the menagerie spied in Central Park to the pre-pre lapsarian, primordial muck. It has the feel of a last-chance gambit….
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Back in New York’s Central park those animals from the manuscript illumination are still making their way across Umpire Rock. These animals as we have called them, as viewers will see them, are of course actors, actors clad in cheap, kitschy one piece suits –like down at the heels astronauts. Of the four characters two are in bright pink suites and two are in yet brighter yellow ones. We know they are animals because each human face is concealed by a cheap, plastic party-store animal mask. These four plastic-faced bipeds are Malen’s gloss on aboriginal beings caught at the Ur moment of existence as they issue directly from the earth. In this sequence, subtitled The Reason Of The Strongest Is Always The Best, Malen directs her actors’ slow passage across the giant rock. New York skyscrapers foreclose the proscenium’s rear, dappling the rock with shadow and glare while the animals tread with a cautious if not awkward gait. It is the natural caution of animals one might suppose. But it is also the caution of one who is not comfortably from here. One who does not belong in this place. And the place, the place that this is, is one can think, key to the whole project of Malen’s. It is a question of place that shapes and haunts each separate video component and the total assemblage of Scenes From Paradise. It is the sense that there is no place of return. No route back to the pre-lapsarian. The lost animals are only awash in a list, a scattershot, of cultural references. They turn a corner from one enacted cultural scene to the next and so on until, ominously, curtain call. The mini-references are peppered throughout. Already checked off are Hitchcock, Olmsted and Bergman. On screen Rafael Viñoly’s towering 432 Park Avenue looms above the park and the animals. Designed around what is described by Viñoly as “the purest geometric form: the square, and inspired by a trash can.” The building’s street address says to New Yorkers as much as they need to know, while the wealth-scale of entrée to said address will be anything but hidden by its shadow profile. Like a sundial counting down to midnight, Viñoly’s shadow will chase the animals out of Olmsted’s phony Eden.
Malen trawls wide culturally. In another of her Scenes From Paradise Malen borrows her title, Four Saints in Three Acts, from early Twentieth Century, dramatic modernism. Malen’s take upon Virgil Thompson and Gertrude Stein’s opera is played out on the rooftops of Long Island City. In the background the Long Island Expressway plunges into the Midtown Tunnel (or read the other way –left to right– the tunnel spits out Wall Street parasites on their Friday afternoon ride to the Hamptons) as Thompson and Stein’s opera resounds to the challenging sound of the 7 train atop what used to be the factory buildings of New York’s manufacturing base. That such Bohemian modernists as Thomson and Stein have always played in proximity to the masters of “finance” may not be Malen’s point but it is a fact that should surely not be lost sight of. First staged by Chick Austin at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, Four Saints in Three Acts was an important element in the cementing of American Modernism and elite patronage. Austen’s influence upon the development of Modernist practices in theater, dance and fine art reticulates across the urban landscape from Harvard and Hartford to Park Avenue. So yes Thompson and Stein supervised a clash of classes with Austen’s patronage and the induction of plebian instruments into the orchestra. But Malen’s setting ramps up the clash while drawing class, willy nilly, along into the territory of the latest war of social survival in the urban rubble of the Anthropocene. For Malen the opera is delivered in a voice over recording while a lone player, dancing across the rooftop, voices a solo rendering of the signature line of the opera, “there can be no peace on earth with calm”. The actor is positioned at screen left, while a visual counterpoint of a giant electronic billboard, hovering above the tunnel entrance/exit, blinks relentlessly at screen right, as it peddles “All Natural Chobani yogurt”. Thence, surely, the circle closes around any and all nature culture dialogues.
It is in Chobani sponsored “natural” moments like this, as the Wall Street rich speed through the morass of Long Island’s one hundred and eighteen mile suburban blight toward their manicured Hampton’s nature, tended by undocumented Latinos, who are hated by their unemployed white working class neighbors who are relentlessly told they are middle class people, that the full mien of Malen’s layered cultural and political project unfolds. As Malen observes, speaking of her earlier project, I Am The Animal, the real subject of the film is the breakdown of boundaries between human and animal, organic and inorganic, the biological and the technical that leads to the realization that “there is no human and there never has been” and that “the human is not a given but rather is made in an ongoing process of technological and anthropological evolution”. For Scenes From Paradise we must surely add that political and urban evolution, specifically of New York City, are also important terms of that human-making equation. Malen is herself quoting Cary Wolfe as she recognizes that there are no sustainable boundaries. Boundaries are, rather, a magic confection born of ideological needs that have by now worn thin. Thus there is no returned-to-nature to be pulled, rabbit like, from a hat or a political movement. It –nature– has been changed utterly. (We are still awaiting the terrible beauty??)
In what might be the concluding chapter of Malen’s project Adam and Eve make their first entry into Scenes from Paradise. The Ur protagonists of human history can be found on a sheep farm near Ghent, New York, which stands in amply for Eden. The two proto-humans wear wonderful full-frontal nude suites that, with deft modesty/censorship, display the humans’ un-embarrassment with their “natural” bodies. The other animals, from the original 15th Century Illumination, are also there in the guise of a small flock of gamboling grey sheep with whom Adam and Eve interact. As Malen muses of Adam and Eve in this sequence “They learn to be human going about it naively, . . . they interact with the sheep. They react to objects, . . . they sit and talk. . . . they name the animals. They die.” It is a closed system of no hope.
That Scenes From Paradise is overwhelmingly about a complexly shaded eco-catastrophe is a given that is ever present on Malen’s screen. That a class-driven, economics-driven, north-south divide-driven potlatch has been played out is a given. And potlatch has always had the risk, the catch, (its given), built into it, that is, you might just give too much away.
Again, no rabbit from hat, rather there is a need to reinvent what we mean by and use as nature going forth. That the style of Malen’s intervention has a Planet of The Apes feel to it (perhaps it is the down-at-the-heels astronaut suites) is no coincidence. Knowing, understanding the nature/culture toggle switch plays out on precisely the cultural terrain where images come to represent lived experience is the key. And so sitting in Malen’s studio, watching Scenes from Paradise, we became aware of the reflections of the video images on the studio floor. They conjured up a flickering afterimage of nature, nature not quite lost. But also they brought to mind human optics. The image on the floor was, after all, upside down. Like the image on the human Iris before all that heavy -ifting brainwork is done to turn it right side up. The suitably confusing question, then, might be, what work is to be done turning what which way up?
More of Lenore Malen’s work can be seen at: http://lenoremalenblog.com/