Image: E. Jane, MHYSA-TogetherAgain.mp4, 2024, photo by Richard McDonough
June 18th 2024

The multidisciplinary artist and musician E. Jane’s curated show I AM STANDING HERE SURROUNDED BY SO MUCH BEAUTY brings together five short films by five artists: Chelsea A. Flowers, Kearra Amaya Gopee, Shala Miller, Elle Pérez, and Jane herself. Currently on view at OCD Chinatown’s second floor space, tucked inside a marketplace, the show is the product of conversations between its collaborators meeting and re-meeting. The five artists all attended the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine, which is seen in the opening video, Skowhegan 4th of July (2022).

Screening as a single-channel projection, the films that make up the 39-minute video-loop all touch on similar themes—the messiness of memory and ancestry, a preoccupation with death, placemaking and its politics, and the renegotiations and slippages between the artists and the places depicted in the video, which, as the exhibition’s title suggests, surround the viewer with so much beauty. In dialogue with one another's worlds—both real and imagined—the artists’ films shudder under historical and personal burdens, yet emerge with a collection of subversive and intimate gestures—of wonder, self-discovery, desire, and beauty. Often blurring the lines between film and performance, these artists explore colonial histories and their implications, and their films investigate interiority, ritual, self-making, and disobedient world-making processes in relation to visual and performance practices.

When the end of the full loop arrives, after the final line of Shala Miller’s monologue in Mrs. Lovely (2022), it does so lightly. Throughout, the screen momentarily goes dark, pausing between each of the films, as if to offer brief respites. “Make the end you need,” a phrase repeated in Gopee’s Artifact #3: Terra Nullius (2018-2019), acts as a guide for experiencing the entire program—and thus the sites of the artists’ imaginations—which promises to continuously play again and again. The dialogue between these richly complex videos can extend itself and continue, even just for another round.

The title of the show was inspired by Chelsea F. Flowers’s Skowhegan 4th of July, which captures a natural space of beauty—a repeating presence throughout the program—from the perspective of a go-pro. Skowhegan 4th of July begins with Flowers’s friend helping her set up a go-pro camera around her head. “It’s on? Is it recording?” she asks. It’s dusk at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture and Flowers’s camera greets the crowd in front of her, who are sitting and standing in the grass clearing of a forest in Maine. “The video is a little slanted, but we’ll edit that out,” she says.

In the eight-minute comedic sketch that follows, Flowers plays with the technologies of cinema and performance, slyly posing a challenge to the audience. She stages an interactive dialogue about how, and if, the filmmaker should cast a movie about slavery with an all-white cast. “Last time I had a comedy performance I was having a mental breakdown, and the audience didn’t know how to respond,” she confesses. Throughout, her performance presents a divulgence of personal information, though the impetus for sharing seems to begin and end with the artist.

By creating a scenario in which race is discussed publicly, Flowers’s film builds a space for the audience to intervene in the creative process. She films her colleagues from her own point-of-view—the camera literally on her own head, making the viewer mirror the crowd to which she performs. Speaking with the crowd’s members as improvisational subjects for her work, Flowers moves the camera along in a constant panoramic search. She is a scenarist, at once performing an organic conversation that is clearly staged. While Flowers deals with the discomfort of her own performance, her angst is animated by her humor and personal history. All the while, the camera remains restless. It is as if Flowers’s camera is trying to make her surroundings follow the pace of her internal clock and experience. While there is a consensus in the crowd about her hypothetical film—that it should never actually manifest—there is never a stabilization of the camera. The video ends as it started, with two people working together to take the camera off this time.

In their poetic monologue for Mrs. Lovely, Shala Miller unfurls an elegiac narrative that takes place in a fictional suburban neighborhood and remains in the character’s mind throughout the ten-minute runtime. Veiling their character in dim lighting and black-and-white monochrome video, Miller frames Mrs. Lovely’s upper-body and face as if posing for a portrait, adorning her in a high-neck lace top. In a tone that is both gentle in its quietude and brimming with venom, Miller explores the vexed relationship between Mrs. Lovely and their neighbor’s garden: “Their garden, which I’m convinced is full of evil, starts at their backdoor, and is beginning to reach mine—what's left of mine.”

Mrs. Lovely, a luminent figure onscreen, announces a series of clear instructions directly to their neighbor, but perhaps also for Miller’s own attempt to understand their own relation to place and to self, as if to find their way out of the frame enclosing them: “If you’re going to have the weeds there, for the love of god, at least protect them from the lilies!” But Mrs. Lovely admits that their garden, too, is “a badly kept garden in [their] mind.” The short video is an oblique self-portrait—having grown up in the suburbs of Ohio, Miller makes use of video, writing, and performance to understand their own history. Miller’s use of lighting, tied with the character’s formal speech and dress, cannot avoid connotations of antebellum; Miller simultaneously renders their character atemporal while producing a direct visual connection to violence—of the referential neighbors, their omnipresence and encroachment on their body, mind, and space—that is elastic, and both very real and imagined.

Kearra Amaya Gopee’s Artifact #3: Terra Nullius is the final installment in a self-referential trilogy that explores genealogical lineages and the messiness of heritage, uncertainty, spirituality, and place within the Caribbean diaspora. Using their own family history as a point of reference, Gopee harnesses intimacy and ritual to meditate on dynamics of memory in relation to long inheritances of migration and colonialism. During the video’s opening, the artist keeps the screen dark and summons their own doubts: “I am not sure if writing about a beautiful place is in my best interests. Mostly because I am from one of those places, and I know that it is not beautiful or romantic. We are in the middle of things, so to speak, and we know that these places require fantasies and counter fantasies.” Here, for almost a minute, the black screen reads: “we’ve seen this beach before. Unlike Perez’s and Jane’s capture of waters, Gopee’s beach is one that the audience never sees.

After this introduction, the artist places themself in a nondescript forest, facing one of two mirrors—which feel like portals—propped on tree trunks. The film’s environment is immersed in the glimmering forest’s deep browns and greens; Gopee is surrounded not only by trees, but by their own reflection in the mirrors set up around their uniquely created place. Here, making use of both mirrors and a double-panel onscreen, the forest becomes at once a place of creation and dissolution. But, there is an intentional slippage in the acts of place-making seen in the video—the placing of mirrors, the wrapping of hair in a bandana, and later, the use of a loud torch machine. Is the torch on display used to build or unbuild? Gopee harnesses the possibility of cinema to hold these counter-fantasies. This is most pronounced when a mirror falls and breaks, and a jarring, glitching sound plays over a cropped close-up of the newly cracked object. Gopee does not shy away from centering the ruptures and stutters in the polished continuity of their story or reflection about themselves and the place featured in the video.

Using their alter-ego MHYSA, E. Jane’s MHYSA -TogetherAgain.mp4 (2024) places her work in conversation with popular media. In this case, the fantastical Afro-paradise in Janet Jackson’s video for “Together Again.” The film’s incantatory force elicits a call-and-response, as Jane’s work builds on other projects made in the Lavendra Series where she deconstructs and re-performs popular music videos and their songs.

“Jackson is singing in nowhere in particular in Africa, attempting to be afro-futuristic. But is she really engaging with that place?” Jane asks. “For my location, I decided on the Maldives; it’s a place of my own conjecture of paradise.” Synthesizing Jackson’s R&B soul song, Jane superimposes DV-tapes of herself-as-MHYSA singing onto picturesque waterfalls and landscapes in South Asia, marked, too, by a texture of glitches and bad chords. The eruptive sound, broken and repeated gestures, and visceral emotion of this short video stage a kinetic defiance against the paradisiacal landscape on view. Repurposing sonic material, Jane manipulates sound and video to intervene in a world she is working against. In doing so, she creates her own space for Black women to scream, sing, take up space, and tinker with material for their own misuse.

Elle Perez’s SHAPER (2023), takes up where E. Jane left off, announcing itself with silence. The film opens with the two arched windows of a subway cart already in motion, saturated in a reddish-orange glow that flares from the light leaks in Perez’s 35 mm Bolex camera. Then, the incandescent hues quickly shift into the darker caverns of the train and later its platform. Here, shadows are sumptuous and alive; even in near-blackness, the shots maintain warmly-lit red undertones in close-ups of interiors from the film’s anonymous look at the city. Perez meditates on overlooked spaces and shadows, and so, their work can occasionally seem timeless and placeless; although, shots that reveal iconic bridges mark the place in their video as New York City.

Perez alienates the familiar in SHAPER, cloaking New York’s subway carts in dim lighting and subtle blurs. This intimate gaze at the different components of the subway—repeated metallic lines, handlebars, a broken window glass adorned in rain droplets, patterns of straight-line overhead lights, the different shapes of blackness on the platforms—keeps the viewer apprised but unable to grasp the site in full. Perez’s mode of representing the moving train is somewhat obscured, as if it's protecting the locations from full view or unconcerned with the viewer.

Throughout, Perez carefully stitches together the subway and the ocean. When a sudden light first breaks into a long, cropped shot of waves crashing onto rocks, I found myself taken aback by the rupture, having been already lulled by the mystery of Perez’s conspicuously unpeopled urban world. Immersed in the camera’s focus on water hitting rocks, I felt as though I too turned in the continuous tides. There is a holiness to Perez’s darker palette, those two-arched subway cart windows rendered other-worldy. Aptly titled, the film invites the viewer to ponder: Who is shaping whom?

I AM STANDING HERE SURROUNDED BY SO MUCH BEAUTY is on view through July 14 at OCD Chinatown.

Image: E. Jane, MHYSA-TogetherAgain.mp4, 2024, photo by Richard McDonough