Mary Lucier, The Plains of Sweet Regret (2007), video installation; courtesy Lennon, Weinberg, Inc.
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Mary Lucier is no Sacha Baron Cohen.
You may remember Mr. Cohen masquerading at a Virginia rodeo as the hapless Kazakh journalist in Borat. As seen in the film, the cowboy spectacle is a haven for yahoos, rednecks and astonishingly casual racists. The squirm-inducing comedy confirmed the prejudices of big-city types, who are, of course, a more highly evolved species. The rodeo, it concluded, is barbaric entertainment.
Ms. Lucier, whose video installation The Plains of Sweet Regret is on view at Lennon, Weinberg, Inc., attends the rodeo and sees something radically different: a poetic blur of muscle, movement and, unexpectedly, a gracious deference to the natural world.
In one sequence of the video, a bull is let loose from a holding pen. A cowboy tries to ride it, but is thrown off in a matter of seconds. He comes precariously close to being trampled and gored; at one point, he lands directly between the animal’s horns. A cadre of men, including a clown, circles their comrade and attempts a rescue. They manage to drive off the bull, whose rampaging hurdles are terrifying to behold. The scene runs at a pace slightly slower than life.
Once the bull calms down and lopes off, the scene begins again. But this time, a mirror image is superimposed upon the original. A Rorschach-like tumult ensues, bull and rider expanding and contracting into a heaving field of action.
The scene is run yet again, complicated further by shifts in time. The temporal stagger creates a kaleidoscopic abstraction of transparent earthy tones and magical, transitory pictures. At one point, a virtual totem pole coalesces and just as swiftly dissipates; it exists as a ghostly flash of portent.
The camera makes a sudden rush sideways, and we’re presented with different moments of the same rodeo projected in a similar manner. At the end, a wrangler brings a calf to the ground. For one fleeting instant, man and animal morph into each other as the divide between them dissolves. A rough-and-tumble collision of purpose is choreographed into a sinuous ballet. We intuit the cowboy’s respect for the animal, despite the confrontation that’s taken place.
The rider, wearing a white cowboy hat and a pinstriped shirt, lets go of the calf; both pick themselves up and walk away with breathtaking nonchalance. The cowboy comes toward the camera. Turning sideways, his head is briefly transformed into a Janus-like effigy. All the while, George Strait’s “I Can Still Make Cheyenne,” a plaintive country song about distance and loss, underscores the archetypal drama enacted by the rodeo. Ms. Lucier conjures up myth with a deceiving dispassion. It’s an awesomely beautiful sequence.
The rodeo scenes come at the end of The Plains of Sweet Regret, and they all but eclipse what’s come before. Which isn’t to say that the rest of the 18-minute video, presented on five separate screens, isn’t, in its own way, stunning. The installation abounds with iconic heartland images—more documentary than lyrical—from the vast and consuming plains of North Dakota.
Laurel Reuter, the director of the North Dakota Museum of Art, commissioned The Plains of Sweet Regret as part of a larger project titledEmptying Out of the Plains. This initiative invites essayists, poets and filmmakers to respond to the ongoing evolution of the state and its economy, population and landscape.
“The land is now occupied,” Ms. Reuter writes, by “agribusiness with its massive machinery, global positioning systems … worldwide marketing networks, and government safety nets.” Communities are changing: Some are adapting and most, it appears, are dying; the migration of farmers, cowboys and jobs has left a disheartening mark. Ms. Lucier’s video is a kind of historic preservation.
Talk of “global positioning systems” shouldn’t deter anyone wary of political ax-grinding. Ms. Lucier steers clear of explicit commentary; the intractability of time is her subject. In her hands, time’s unsparing momentum is rendered monolithic and is stilled, however precariously.
The artist juxtaposes panoramic vistas with remnants of individual achievement and desire. Isolated highways, smokestacks expelling pinkish-purple smoke, and wind-blown fields of wheat are set against abandoned homes and churches, a mysterious stack of suitcases, a cow giving birth, a weathered bowling trophy and farmland seen from a speeding car. History haunts The Plains of Sweet Regret, but through quiet understatement and an unfailingly humane focus, the video dexterously avoids the pitfalls of easy nostalgia.
Ms. Lucier has a cinematographer’s gift for composition, tempo and point of view, as well as an impressionistic instinct for narrative, however obscure or diffuse. Camera movements are various, recording events straight on, at first-person vantage points, gently rocking back and forth, panning downward or moving at an almost indiscernibly reduced speed.
Each of the five screens may hold disparate actions or objects, yet they’re counterpoised in ways that unify the work’s gentle yearning. An atmospheric cascade of music (composed by Ms. Lucier’s longtime collaborator, Earl Howard) keys in to subtle shifts of rhythm, image and gesture. The undulating electronic score, forever promising crescendos but adroitly glancing off them, indispensably complements the visuals.
Ms. Lucier stumbles when she inserts an unnecessary theatrical device. Two women wearing kerchiefs and a young police officer with an earring are simultaneously seen swaying in slo-mo. Their languorous motions smack too much of the artist’s conscious direction. It is Ms. Lucier’s lone false note.
Otherwise, The Plains of Sweet Regret is a moving evocation of a land burdened with grave uncertainty. A nagging strain of pessimism informs the work, but Ms. Lucier’s celebration of the American character refuses to capitulate to it. There’s resilience mixed with her melancholy. If she doesn’t tell us about the country as deeply or as concisely as Walker Evans or John Ford, Ms. Lucier approaches the stern heights reached by Edward Hopper. Certainly, she gets closer to the heart of things than Borat. Compassionate insight beats cruel humor every time.
© 2007 Mario Naves
Originally published in the April 1, 2007 edition of The New York Observer.