Images mediate. While they cannot do justice to the full scope of any artwork, scene or entity, they serve to pique curiosity, offering hints at what has been and what might be. The images of Georgie Friedman’s BREATHING–LIGHT—which called from the glowing screen of my computer a month ago—helped build a sense of the exhibition in my mind’s eye. I pictured a visual media installation dealing with ineffable cosmos, perhaps something akin to a planetarium. And while parts of my expectations rang true to my experience of Friedman’s installation, no image could have prepared me for what I would experience entering its womb-like atmosphere: an immersive ocean of sun swirling like amniotic fluid.
Friedman has meticulously animated 1000s of images taken by NASA/SDO and the AIA, EVE, and HMI science teams. The animations live in the curtained-off Gallery 2 of Oregon Contemporary, passing slowly over three curved and asymmetrical screens and depicting streams of light and granulated matter that glow in sepia hues. Their motion allows me to tap into the notion that I, too, am moving, circling the Sun from my seemingly still stance on Earth. On three of the surrounding gallery walls, projections of clouds and sparkling particles fly by at a lively pace.
Steeped in all this imagery, I get a sense of my own cyclicality, and this fills me with the best kind of dissonance, which is both comforting and unnerving.
In fact, if I had to choose one phrase to surmise the tenor of BREATHING–LIGHT, it would be something along the lines of “cognitive dissonance.” The work has a way of asking its witnesses to hold vastly different concepts in mind—infinity and finitude, minutia and magnitude—and to sit in the mental, sensory, and philosophical confusion this produces. Many artists strive and struggle to strike this hard balance of cognitive dissonance, but Friedman has managed to do it with meticulous care, such that I can accept it without realizing I have accepted it.
I also appreciate that the exhibition text offers a tidbit of context that, though scientific, serves to further baffle me. I find no didactic concept, no hand-wringing anxiety about the climate crisis or the colonial pursuits in outer space, all of which I had expected. Instead, I read this description of the work: “The shrinking and slicing of the Sun’s surface creates a scale shift. Either the Sun (which is 864,400 miles in diameter – about 109 times that of the Earth) has shrunk to thirty-two feet wide, or we’ve become almost 20 Earths – 836,985,600 ft – tall.”
Come again? I thought I had a frame of reference for miles and feet, but at this cumulative quantity, I am lost (and perhaps this is the point).
I can only gather from BREATHING–LIGHT that the Sun is now small in relation to the earth and to me. And, at the same time, these wisps of light I am noticing in its animated surface—“solar flares,” “coronal holes”—are made of much tinier particles than I can ordinarily perceive with my weak human eyes on Earth. I cannot even look directly at the sun without risking damage to my vision, but Friedman’s work gives me the chance to face its magnanimity. How little I know about this light that touches me every day, I realize, and how extraordinary and insignificant I feel at once!
These machinations induced by BREATHING–LIGHT challenge me to consider myself as a being with such limited capacity for perception, skewing the nature of reality toward myself, my experience. Here, the Sun tugs at the orbit of what I think I know. The soundscape for this exhibition, created in collaboration with Radio Sloan, deepens the ambiance of the space with its tonal quality.
Lately, in my journey as both a writer and a maker, I have continued to bump up against fatigue that my writing, my artwork (everyone’s artwork!) must fulfill some sort of dictated function, sociopolitically or otherwise, in order to merit an audience and support. But I find relief from this external pressure upon stepping into Friedman’s BREATHING–LIGHT. It allows me the opportunity to grapple with this ancient and holy body, the Sun—which I crave, take for granted and, at times, resent—and pulls me out of humanity’s orbit. I find it remarkably easy for my bodymind to drift into a space of contemplation about the limitations of my frames of reference and the lessons I have yet to learn in this reflexive space.
BREATHING-LIGHT is on view at Oregon Contemporary in Gallery 2 through March 10, 2024, with regular gallery hours: Fridays-Sundays 12 PM–5 PM. The exhibition is also open for extended hours as part of Portland Winter Light Festival February 9-10 from 12 PM–10 PM.