James Cordas’s sprawling mural of the ‘Safe Surrender Site’ icon – used in the US to designate sanctioned places where you can give up a newborn child without legal repercussions – dominated the confined, windowless basement space of Et Al. The icon’s house-shaped outline (created with standard domestic paint) was distorted where it stretched over both floor and walls, echoing the irregularly angled shape of the gallery space. Within these lines, the silhouette of a monumental hand proffers up the body of an infant with its arms and legs pointed skyward. Beginning with this deceptively straightforward symbol, Cordas explored the civic rhetoric of defending and safeguarding those without power.
The exhibition – titled ‘a, dog I’m holding undermy [sic] arm with its head pointed behind me’ – used a combination of flickering lights (8 Poems, all works 2015), which plunged the gallery into darkness at unpredictable and abrupt intervals, and a whirring, droning sound piece (Vampire), which manipulated the noise of a cruise-ship engine to create an unnerving sensory experience. Both were controlled via software that translated the audio and light signals from unheard recordings of voices reading poetry through analogue circuits: when one of the imperceptible voices made a sound, lights came on in the gallery. The overwhelming experience was of being unable to interpret or predict any of the forces that controlled conditions in the space; it made it hard for viewers to understand what was happening right in front of them – like the backward-facing dog of the show’s title.
Compounding and challenging this sense of powerlessness, the presence of neatly arranged, crowd-control gear in front of a large mirror – Contemplative Cop (8 ft. Cop) – suggested that viewers might try to imagine what it would be like to take on the role of upholding what the authorities call the ‘protection’ and ‘safety’ of the public. On the evening of the exhibition opening, this riot gear was worn by a performer who sat on a painted stump and stared into the mirror without breaking his own gaze. This closed circuit of inspection and introspection evoked the difficulties in imagining how those involved in crowd control must see themselves. The mild sense of threat from the riot gear was tempered by some absurdist humour. (The cop held the position of Rodin’s 1880 sculpture, The Thinker.)
This thematic concern with the complicated ways in which we aesthetically experience the state’s duty to protect us was also a touchstone for the three mixed-media wall pieces in the show. Sharp Park, Full Spectrum Suburban House Fire and Gender Neutral Noise Musician were created by overlaying stock images of various kinds with perforated vinyl: the material used to make window decal designs in storefronts and that allows for one-way visibility. Full Spectrum Suburban House Fire depicts a two-storey home going up in flames using bright rainbow hues that are both cheerful and soothing, inhibiting our ability to read the image as depicting a tragic scene. Sharp Park superimposes silhouettes of medical tools over a Windows desktop stock image of rolling green hills and blue sky, again muting any feelings of dread as to the purpose of the implements.
Finally, a laser image of a twirling aeroplane projected onto Sharp Park reflects off its mirrored surface onto the opposite wall. The aircraft’s abnormal spiraling movement creates a faint sense of alarm given the association of plane crashes with terrorist attacks. Once again, the image, with its silly pink and green coloured lights, is at odds with its implied content. But Cordas seems to be less interested in the war on terror – or questions about paternalism and the nanny state – than he is in the formal aesthetics of disorientation, dependence and informational stonewalling that is experienced in contemporary American life.
First published in Issue 172