In 1977, while flying over the San Joaquin Valley during what was then California’s most severe recorded drought, a Chevron employee named Sam Chase snapped a photo of a mile-high plume of dust. When it fell back to earth, churning and sucking, it bore down on desiccated acreage and buried below-grade parts of Bakersfield. Though there have been worse droughts – the Dust Bowl is more storied and California is only this winter emerging from a its driest stretch to date – there remain few such iconic images of vengeful nature. As its title suggests, Miljohn Ruperto’s exhibition, ‘Geomancies’, seeks to divine an image from the earth. In Re-animating ‘Valley Turbulence’ by Sam Chase (2016) – a rear-projected, freestanding light box – the artist sets Chase’s photograph of the pending storm into a slow, seamless loop: modern urgency and ancient doom.
The photo re-appears in Ordinal (SW/NE) (2017), an hour-long experimental documentary piece shot with the filmmaker Rini Yun Keagy, screened in a narrow, wedge-shaped room at the gallery’s centre. Through the story of a young black student living in California’s Central Valley, Ordinal (SW/NE) explores both the science and myth of Valley Fever, a fungal infection borne by dust storms and endemic to the American Southwest. Ruperto ascribes the coincidences of his research not to empirical procedure, but to the persistence of images and tropes – a transcultural confluence of wind, breath, birth, death, agriculture and mysterious blight. We learn from the film’s voice-over that the dust overtook San Joaquin in the same year that Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977) hit cinemas. During filming, director John Boorman was stricken with Valley Fever; movie buffs will recall that the devil inside the child protagonist, Regan, isn’t Satan but Pazuzu, Mesopotamian demon of pestilence, drought and the southwestern wind.
In Ruperto’s work, this disease is a figurative infection, transmissible in any medium. His performance Possession (2017) replicates a freakout from Andrzej Żuławski’s eponymous 1981 cult horror film, with two dancers moving in jagged, mirrored synchrony. On a monitor in another corner is Driving South at Sunset. The Camera Faces East (2007), a video of a woman inching home at rush hour singing Willie Nelson’s ‘Always on my Mind’ (1982). Valley Fever is most fatal if it reaches the brain; significantly, the driver’s profile against the car window echoes that of the preserved head of Domingo Ezcurra, an Argentine soldier who succumbed to the first recorded case. His post-mortem photograph appears in Ordinal (SW/NE), his features blurred by the fungus as if obscured by soft crystals.
Ruperto’s characterization of the pathogen combines archaic deifications of windborne sickness with shades of contemporary speculative realism. Science has its own name for this malignant dust; but if Coccidioides immitis is a living microorganism, the artist goes further, endowing it with motivation. When faced with the facts of manmade drought, Ruperto implies, the climate-change denials of industrial agriculture are like incantations against a bellicose god.
Indeed, Driving South at Sunset. The Camera Faces East points to the show’s deeper, paranoiac congruence: the video is screened on a monitor positioned such that the viewer, like Ruperto’s camera once did, faces due east. Possession, meanwhile, takes place in the south corner and Re-animating ‘Valley Turbulence’ sits to the north. To the west, finally, hangs Demonology: Pazuzu (2016), a small lenticular print of the feathered, snake-penised god. Ruperto thus organizes the roughly square room as a compass rose, with a work at each point. This geomancer’s arrangement seems to bolster the show’s themes as much as issue from them: as Pazuzu rules the southwest wind, Ordinal (SW/NE)’s wedge-shaped screening room extends from his image, widening toward REDCAT’s northeast wall. The projectionbeam follows, spreading a plague of further images.
Main image: Miljohn Ruperto, Ordinal (SW/NE), 2017, film still. Courtesy: the artist and REDCAT, Los Angeles
First published in Issue 187