“My favorite painting in the whole world is at the Cleveland Museum of Art, it’s a Turner and the inspiration for this,” confesses artist Tabitha Soren as she points to the photograph behind us. Over the image floats a tsunami swish of oranges and yellows that harken back to the JMW Turner painting to which she refers — “The Burning of the House of Lords and Commons, 16 October 1934.” Turner speaks of man’s helplessness when face to face with the awesome destructive power of nature.
Soren’s image along with three additional landscapes along the same wall confront environmental destruction caused by the fingerprint of humankind. What the viewer sees, after a seriously deep artistic process, is a wave of bacteria and sweat that exude a prismatic rainbow effect. Greenland, in case you weren’t totally aware, is the second largest island after Australia. Soren says, “There are so many people that have visited that it’s shrinking in size because of erosion and the impact on it.”
The four images are writ large in 80” x 60” format. The artist explains, “I’m using an 8x10 camera that has an 8x10 negative in it, so it’s basically the size of an iPad, and then the surface area I’m shooting is an iPad, not a phone and that’s the exponential difference, right? So it’s about four times the size, so when you look at something like that, very close up, the sweat and the bacteria become a prism, here it looks like smudge, but with the light on it, it turns it into all these rainbow bits, which is also the reason why the scale is so important. If I made them 8x10’s, even online you wouldn’t be able to see the detail."
Soren illuminates further as she walks us through the other landscapes. “The touch on the surface relates to the touch that humans have done to the earth behind it, so the first one here is the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. It’s been bleached beyond repair by people wanting to see it so there’s this attraction to nature, but we leave a definite imprint on nature if not destruction.”
Her explanation of the second image blew our mind. It is one thing to see the raging wildfires on the news, but to be in the belly of the beast is a whole other level of mind bend.
“In California we’re besieged by fires all the time and this is of Tahoe and I pulled it up because I was driving my daughter to a softball tournament and we had a detour and I had to find my way around the fire to get her to her game, but just in the GPS it brings up the image. Yes, this is about environmental destruction and global warming and 2018 hottest year on record - we had four fires just in California and it devastated just burned to the ground entire towns and they still aren’t back on their feet, so any time one of these fire pieces sells, money goes to the wildlife community fund in California - but the other thing about this; because it was pulled up on my GPS, we think of GPS as just maps, but now it’s so fancy there are all these visuals that go by and the reason that there are so many images in the room and why it’s so jam packed is that’s the way we move through the world, just constantly navigating our way through these pictures that we don’t actually seek out, they come to us.”
On the facing wall, there is a series of images Soren has grouped regarding people resisting, trying to have some effect on their own lives.
“That’s a vigil from Cleveland, actually two of them, for Tamir Rice’s birthday.”
Soren received permission from Tamir’s mom to exhibit it.
Nearby is a photo of a gun on the ground, under a spotlight, at the feet of, presumably, a police officer; the blue hue is profound.
“This is just a police stock (photo),” states Soren, “which got so ominous because it had so many layers; issues with police feeling safe and people of color feeling safe and the use of extreme force, which has been a problem in Cleveland as well as many other cities. I don’t always agree with the way they’re doing it, but I’m not showing purposefully Tamir Rice on the ground or someone being beaten up on the ground, I don’t think all cops are bad. I think technology lends a perception to people that causes people of color to feel unsafe and for police to feel threatened. So the combo of that misperception creates a lot of tragedy and on a smaller scale, trouble."
We move on to an image void of personage, but hauntingly real and horrific. It’s a rickety, cold metal twin bedframe, in the corner of a concrete cell, draped with a red trimmed, scratchy Army blanket that tells the story of the late Kalief Browder. The sixteen year old boy was pulled over on his bike because the police alleged he had stolen a backpack, of which he was cleared. However, the young boy was sent into solitary confinement at Riker’s Island for two of three long years where he endured abuse from prison guards, as well as inmates. - The video, which was published with his permission on the New Yorker’s website, will make you want to throw up.
“Being in solitary confinement away from anyone’s touch, that’s how it relates to my project, he lost something and killed himself after he got out,” Soren explains, somberly, “You know, so you have another mother of a teenage boy grieving because of a mix-up.” Venida Browder, Kalief’s mother who advocated against children being put into solitary confinement, died prematurely of a heart attack one year after her son’s suicide.
Soren also dives deep into research about the two subjects most obsessed about on the Internet: cats and pornography. One the table behind us, near the entrance of the gallery, lays a pile of cat photos and close up stills from porn that were to be installed on one wall according to the diagram pinned to it.
“The cats and porn are about our desire online. The things people spend the most time with online are porn - not shocking -, pictures of cats and videos of cats.” She clarifies, “There are two studies that say your serotonin goes up 25%, for twenty minutes, if you’re a cat lover, at cat videos. By spending all this time looking at screens no matter what you’re looking at, there’s a loss of intimacy and human touch between people that we are genetically designed to need and want and are rewarded by. What made me go and connect the two was that they were the same. The layout of the cat and the porn, that is, and I was like 'What the?' The poses, the color, then I thought OK, they work much better together”
Finally we walk over to the floor installation for the pieces “Narcissus (1, 2, and 3).” They are high glossed and reflect everything like a pool.
“Look into them for me. Can you see yourself?" asks Soren who continues, “They are riffing off the myth are Narcissus that catches his reflection, can’t pull himself away and eventually dies and I do feel like when we are looking at our screens we are reflected into that, so that’s one layer, and two when we are on social media you are creating that identity and also reflecting yourself out into the world. And then in addition, you are also giving up something, it’s not killing us, as far as we know, but how much time are you spending on the virtual versus the real.”
Soren then relays a Harvard study where anxiety of college students has taken over depression as the most upsetting mental health issue and connect it to image based social media, remarking on the tradeoff spending that amount of time creating one’s persona and one’s actual mental health. “I’m not anti-Facebook or anti-Instagram,” she adds. “I’m anti replacing your real life with your virtual ones.”
Soren will be giving an artist talk on Saturday, October 26, 2019 at 1:00 P.M. and will be worth the trek. Her skillful observation and adroit layout of the exhibition and how piece each relates to the next is something we could have listened to her speak about for hours, and we did. Surface Tension is an exhibition to behold.
It opens this Friday, October 25, 2019 from 7:00 P.M. – 9:00 P.M. along with Undercurrents: A Photobook Exhibition at Transformer Station, 1460 West 29th Street, Cleveland, Ohio 44113. www.transformerstation.org.