Talking Landscape exposes how "real life" only sometimes resembles efforts to describe it.
Talking Landscape: Early Media Work, 1974-1984Director: Andrea Callard
Cast: Andrea Callard
US date: 2012-02-13 (Maysles Cinema)
"It is now time to focus," says Andrea Callard at the start of Talking Landscape, a selection of the installment artist's "Early Media Work, 1974-1984." That work sneaks up on you over the course of the film, beginning with the first short, titled 11 thru 12: Callard stands behind an ironing board, pondering curiosity, and the possibilities provided by yellow objects. "If you want to find something," she says, "Sometimes you can look in the Yellow Pages, and if you want to go somewhere, you can take a taxi, or if you want to find somewhere to go, you can read the National Geographic."
Indeed. In the next 11 minutes, she demonstrates these various potential steps, waiting for a taxi ("Sometimes they won't stop for me," she narrates as vehicles pass by) or flipping through the phone book. Though we're instructed to "Let our fingers do the walking," she says, this can be messy in the rain, for instance. "Walking on your hands is more enjoyable under other circumstances," she demonstrates during a trip to the beach: she disappears into the water to walk on her hands, so you see only her toes pointed and legs slightly wobbly. Whether you decide to pay for a phone, a National Geographic subscription, or a plane ticket, she observes, "The real life value of these things is totally variable."
Such divergence between language and "real life" is one of several notions raised in Talking Landscape, which is screening at the Maysles Cinema from 13-19 February, with Callard on hand for discussions moderated by series curator Livia Bloom on Thursday and Saturday (16 and 18 February). Callard, somewhat like Miranda July, offers a particular view of seemingly everyday experience, except that this view makes it all unfamiliar at the same time. She uses her camera to frame seagulls crowding out sunbathers, stones tossed into a river, and a set of ladders she climbs, one by one and repetitively, in a downtown loft. The four-minute Florescent/Azalea shows alternating red and greenish close-ups, vibrant and seeming to pulse. As attentive to sound as to image, these shorts showcase creaks and rattles, fluorescent light humming and wind and traffic, signs of distraction and focus, noisy imperfection at once complicated and captivating.
In 1978's Notes on Ailanthus, Callard turns her camera on the Ailanthus Altissima, the "tree of heaven," as well as its Brooklyn environs, as she recounts her research in voiceover ("I read everything in the library," she says, revealing the tree was "abundant prior to the Ice Age"). As cars pass and cracked pavement or weeds fill out the frame, she notes what you can't see, that Ailanthus roots grow horizontally, and so can grow "from distressed soil, rancid soil, hardly any soil, anywhere on distressed land." Because they are so hardy, she reports, these trees are planted to help land transition, so that eventually it might support, "eventually, other species that are considered more desirable." She sees in this story another meaning. "I consider them desirable because they can grow," she says, finding meaning -- value -- in this species that adapts and survives.
This theme emerges in other forms repeatedly in Callard's first feature. It closes on a series of slideshows, images of her installations. The Customs House is, she says, "a ruined monument to American trade." In 10 hand-colored slides on a loop, she shows the transition of the Customs House into decay, noting in her introduction that it is now the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian. Exulting that she was able to photograph "inside the rotting building that nobody was using," she then lets the images speak.
Titled and tinted, the pictures suggest that "Pigeons can't live on paint chips," "A house with light and air is a healthy place to live," and "Room after room, the first decade of deluxe decayed." The loop conveys loss and loneliness, as well as strange beauty in time passing and frozen at once. Like the rest of Talking Landscape these images of space and light and broken frames expose how "real life" only sometimes resembles efforts to describe it.