10,000 Roses Later: Sarah Meyohas’s ‘Cloud of Petals’

Sarah Meyohas’s film and Virtual Reality installation at Disjecta asserts the beautiful at a time and with technology we've begun to consider terrifying

By PAUL MAZIAR

It’s easy enough to rely on traditional painting and sculpture to be the go-to vehicles of creativity—to show, maybe, what’s it’s like to be alive in the world, or at least what it’s like to look at it. But what is the world anymore, and are those modes sufficient to show how complex and strange it all is, how “cloud-based”? Trompe-l’œil seems more and more a fat chance. It goes without saying that conventional art mediums and the old idyllic scenes aren’t enough. And, like it or not, technology is as much a part of life today as, well, oil and clay. We’ve seen it all, we’ve felt it all, and now it’s being played back to us in every media there is. But what does it want from us, this tech? Our big data, our little faces, our identities? What do we give up to the people who run it, to get to use or convene with it; who are we now? New York artist Sarah Meyohas seems to be considering these things in her new exhibition at Disjecta, Cloud of Petals, her first show in Portland.

In Cloud of Petals, virtual-reality, film, and sound-scape come together as an orchestration, a symphony that, no matter how mediated (media can be rendered moot in such an immersive experience), is intensely pleasurable. This feat is achievable because of Meyohas’s consideration of living forms in their relation to each other, and relative then to technology and its ramifications. The exhibition explores concepts that hinge upon the supremely familiar, “natural” subject of roses—redolent of “love” to the point of the most persistent cliché, thanks, poets—as well as human bodies.

In a projection that takes up the entirety of a very large wall, the show’s eponymous 16mm film bears a mesmerizing stream of images of clouds, birds, fire, snakes, flies, and yeah, flowers—to suggest themes of fertility, death, and the afterlife, while being a commentary on capital and commerce, big data, automation, and power.

Sarah Meyohas, “Cloud of Petals”, film/Photo by Mario Gallucci for Disjecta

The film’s setting is Eero Saarinen’s otherworldly Bell Works lab in Holmdel, NJ, and it’s a fitting (if antagonistic) backdrop for the visceral corporeality of those stunning images. The cast is 16 petal-plucking men—with the artist commingling here and there; her presence is rather like a ballet dancer in effect, graceful, serious, and real—who occupy and work in an otherwise void space, to digitize 10,000 rose petals that they themselves pluck. Their drama, their beautiful aspect catches me off guard: “Isn’t this a sendup of the patriarchy and its drive to power, to control at all cost?” In one scene, the men place peach and yellow petals onto their little altars as if they might shatter or else fly away. In another, the artist tenderly attempts to place a dead fly on an ethernet cable. The string arrangements play as the visual rhythm of glass windows mimics the score as well as a previous scene’s cords, wires and microchips. Later, a dead blue fly is caught up in Meyohas’s red hair like a visual representation of an Emily Dickinson stanza. Even later, the men just throw the petals onto the floor. Strange things happen.

Sarah Meyohas, “Cloud of Petals”, film/Photo by Mario Gallucci for Disjecta

The film, and this show, has an intellectual vision that’s propelled by a nervy playfulness. Its context is in and around the trappings of digital infrastructure, with an absorbing score by Drew Brown. I remember thinking that the film is, like, a Matthew Barney art-film without all that Dali (strange, not “Weird”), and tenderer, more resonant than a linear movie one might enjoy in a theater. I now imagine a riff on Gertrude Stein, “A rose is a rose is a rose.” The whole thing was enough to keep my rapt attention on a Sunday morning, even en media res, and I hadn’t yet reached Cloud of Petals (2017), the virtual reality “sculptures” that awaited.

Along the adjacent wall in the darkness of Disjecta dangle four virtual reality headsets. Virtual reality is not so much an immersive experience as it is two distinctly separate, simultaneous experiences that seem to happen to you. On the one hand, during Cloud of Petals, I am “in” this endless waterfall or a whirl of digitized flower petals, totally aware of its unreality. And on the other hand, I am maybe more aware of my body than ever (at least while “looking at art”). I remain tethered, lassoed to a headset in a space designated by a glowing halo on the floor, and I motor round in what seems to be a complete darkness that otherwise has nothing to do with “me.” This is as pleasant as it is disorienting, like my equilibrium is about to come spilling out of my ear. In each of the virtual reality experiences, one’s movements affect the glowing petals that undulate and flow about, while elements of Brown’s aforementioned score pulse and play, by the movements of your head.

Sarah Meyohas, “Cloud of Petals”/Photo by Josh Latham for Disjecta

Cloud of Petals, to my mind, somehow manages to fill the gap between art and life. It’s as one would expect it could be, totally dizzying. It’s also a concept-based installation that might seem, to the uninitiated, to involve way too much. But to experience it just walking in off the street sans-explanation, the show is as engaging and singularly interesting as any. The result is a fever dream, a deconstruction or reimagination that’s oddly reminiscent of our experience in the digitized, surveilled, endlessly categorized world. It makes me think of the unlikely paradox that is our individuality complicated and yet enlivened by the inextricable nature of our being. I thank Sarah Meyohas for making something beautiful, astonishing out of all this, instead of something as terrifying as this world tends to be.

Notes:

Sarah Meyohas’s Cloud of Petals runs through January 13, 2018, at Disjecta, 8371 N. Interstate Avenue in Portland’s Kenton neighborhood. It was curated by Curator-in-Residence Julia Greenway. Meyohas has exhibited at 303 Gallery in New York (2016), and Where in Brooklyn (2016). She has participated in group shows at Aperture Foundation in New York (2015); Regen Projects in Los Angeles (2016); Alice Gallery in Seattle (2016); and Stux Gallery in New York (2015). Meyohas lives, works, and owns an eponymously named gallery in New York.

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