AUDREY BROWN ON OMNIA AT BAM
Dylan Neuwirth (b. 1977, Athens, Georgia) is a contemporary artist working with light, space, and interactive technologies. The culmination of ten years’ worth of work, OMNIA is Neuwirth’s first solo museum exhibition, presented at the Bellevue Arts Museum. The show is made up of five closely connected bodies of work that “trace a metaphorical life-cycle – and by implication the life of Neuwirth – from the cosmic to the personal.” No element is the same and Neuwirth uses media such as neon, video, virtual reality, and performance art to tell a complicated story of childhood and addiction through the lens of digital culture while exploring the process of searching, belief, and transcendence. For this review, I will focus on two elements of the exhibition: the opening night performance of METANOIA on Friday, October 12 and a video piece titled NEW FOLKLORE.
METANOIA, performed only once before today, is a performance piece slash virtual reality experience. The audience, tonight a group of about fifty, is seated around a circular stage in the middle of a mostly empty room. Above one door is a glowing neon sign that reads “Judy’s,” and against the opposite wall is a shelf of forty-one copies of Blade Runner on VHS. To my left and behind me is an industrial black trunk that reads “METANOIA” in stenciled letters. Ethereal music hums, at first so quietly it would be easy to miss. After the music builds for a while, Neuwirth emerges. He opens the trunk and removes a red cassette and a black book titled “METANOIA,” then jumps up on the stage and takes a seat in the chair. “Hi. I’m Dylan, and I’m an alcoholic.”
The performance lasts for about an hour and is intensely intimate. He reads from the book of METANOIA – tales of childhood with an alcoholic mother, and later discovering drugs, nearly losing everything, and the path to sobriety. Around the mid-point of the performance, Neuwirth stands and dons a virtual reality headset; what he sees is projected onto the large wall across from me. It’s a kitchen, the kitchen from his childhood home. He explores it, reliving memories, and methodically frees his mother, his siblings, and finally himself of their shared, troubled past. One of the last things he looks at in the virtual kitchen is the original Judy’s sign, the recreation of which glows in the room with us. A gift from his mother’s second husband to his mother, it hung above the doorway from the family room to the kitchen, a constant comfort to young Neuwirth during the family turmoil. After the virtual reality experience, he speaks more from the book of METANOIA, ending with his unique version of the final monologue in Blade Runner. He then descends from the stage and hugs every single person in the audience.
Artists tend to create work about what they know, and many before Neuwirth have covered addiction and childhood trauma. However, none that I’ve ever seen have done it in this way. Neuwirth gathered strangers in a room filled with assorted objects and brought them all together by telling his story. Every element in the room was essential, no matter how random seeming. His story is of being young and finding comfort in the red neon sign in the kitchen, of watching eighties classics on the black and white TV while his mother drinks the Jack Daniels she stores under the sink. Neuwirth combines these nostalgic pieces with a futuristic virtual reality component to confront his past and search for a deeper meaning to it while bringing the experience back to life. The materials in the performance help him tell an intimate and often uncomfortable story, and there was not one person in the room who was not moved by it. Walking away from the performance, I felt as if I had briefly been sucked into a black hole, only to be returned to Earth and not quite know what happened, just that I was a little different after. What he did was humbly profound, equal parts devastating and magical.
Another component to OMNIA is a digitally manipulated video of browser-hosted Flash performances titled NEW FOLKLORE. Four and a half minutes in length, the video contains bits about addiction, creating art, the insanity of the internet, and brief poetic snippets about life. Pictured is an avatar version of Neuwirth, speaking his words in a robotic, flat voice. The juxtaposition of deeply personal topics with the emotionless voice is jarring and forces attention on the subject matter. His approach to his family life and his mother’s addiction is matter-of-fact, emphasized even more by the presentation in the video. “Things could get complicated in my house – truth was very fluid. Basically, shit was totally fucked up”. It’s unnerving and makes you feel like you accidentally read someone’s diary. Humorous one-liners like “I’m hungry” and self-deprecating jokes are peppered throughout and are so refreshing compared to the heavy content I find myself actually laughing out loud. After seeing this work, I remembered a Frances Stark video project shown in the Tate Modern. My Best Thing (2011) is an animated film projection featuring avatars of the artist and two Italian men she met in a chatroom, conversing about topics such as sex and politics. The frankness of the conversation combined with the visual representation in both is eerily similar and works well in both animations.
NEW FOLKLORE takes a childhood story of being “babysat by late-night TV” and reinvents it in the lens of modern digital culture. Effects such as static and hiccuping in the video call back to eighties VHS tapes, while the avatar character and computerized voice reference a much more current internet sphere. NEW FOLKLORE is a perfect blend of what Neuwirth aims for in his work – the combination of childhood struggles and the digital world as a means for comprehension.
Dylan Neuwirth is an incredibly accomplished artist and human being. I know the latter statement because I work for and with him. And, in all honesty, if I had walked into this show with zero knowledge of Dylan’s life and work, I probably wouldn’t have liked it. I have little patience for video art installations, and I don’t attend performance pieces. I guess I’m old fashioned that way – I like looking at things on a wall, taking them in, and moving on to the next piece. However, this show forced me to view art differently. It was incredible to see OMNIA realized. It’s easy to take these things for granted when you’ve been surrounded by them – to you, NEW FOLKLORE might be a four-minute video on a museum website, but I had seen it and versions of it several times before OMNIA even opened, and I know he was pushing to finish editing it in time. But seeing it as it’s designed, as a component that supports an entire body of work, it becomes different and more meaningful. It helped that I had the connection of knowing the artist – this made me more connected to work, and more willing to reach to understand it. OMNIA forced me out of my comfort zone, both as an artist attempting to understand the art and as a person watching another person spill their story in front of an audience. I wouldn’t say things “move” me easily, but I walked away from Dylan’s show feeling pretty damn moved.
Dylan has seen a lot and has hit the lowest of the lows. Instead of letting it win, as happens all too often to people of all ages, he takes these experiences and translates them into not only art but an experience. He grapples with deeply personal issues about childhood and addiction by combining them with statements on digital culture in “an age of absolute insanity,” tying them so tightly together they are inseparable.