While in the gallery speaking with Nayda Collazo-Llorens about her recent solo exhibition, An Exercise in Numbness and Other Tales (Sept 6 – Oct 5, 2012) at the Richmond Center for Visual Arts at Western Michigan University, a student approached us to ask about the “genre” of one of the show’s principal works: Unfolding the Triangle: Lake Michigan (2012). Possibly telling of the student’s training in a medium-based formalist art education, this question hints at the artist’s use of a range of materials in the site-specific installation: drawings, found objects, found charts and figures, and texts typed on index-card sized paper, evoking an electronic data collection service.
Collection might best categorize the genre, as the work has the makings of a cabinet of curiosities. One might productively compare her work here to the eclectic archiving of Mark Dion, as in his 2011 Oceanomania, similar both in their visualizations of scientific research and in their playfulness with subjective “data” more readily categorized as art.1 But Collazo-Llorens is not concerned with curating or the museological institutionalization of information here. Gathering various kinds of information online that the artist refers to as “unconfirmed sources,” she forces the viewer to confront information culled from both “scientific” and considerably more specious sources. For example, in the process of her research for this newest version of the piece, the artist discovered the legend of the Lake Michigan Triangle, one of the corners of which sits only a few miles from Kalamazoo in Benton Harbor, Michigan.2 This area is reported to have been the site of a number of strange occurrences and mysterious disappearances of planes and ships, much like the Bermuda Triangle. To these texts, Collazo-Llorens adds drawings taken from her personal archive of daily observations and musings rendered abstractly. As a result, the process of viewing the work involves both close reading and visual interpretation – as well as the complexity of discerning connections between disparate pieces of information.
At the same time, the viewer must physically navigate the installation, which forms an abstracted and anamorphic topographical map when viewed from the gallery entrance (or from above). These pieces of data are scattered in an organized fashion across the loose topographical map of reflective tape that provides a backdrop for the installation. For the viewer to engage with Unfolding the Triangle, she must telescope in and out – moving away from the walls of the gallery to make sense of an overall map and strategy for navigation, zooming in to read details of particular documents or to inspect some of the found objects included, like a pyramid-shaped rock that the artist discovered or a tiny plastic whale she placed in a vial of liquid, distorted so that it resembles a baby shark in formaldehyde. The artist’s assembly of data spreads out on three walls of the gallery and the four exterior walls of a small room built and designed for the exhibition to enclose a video environment, also part of the work. In the interior space of the video room, opposing mirrors reflect projected abstract, subaquatic images and the bodies of visitors navigating the space. The room creates a virtual tunnel seemingly connecting the bottom of Lake Michigan and the Atlantic waters of the Bermuda Triangle. Unfolding the Triangle: Lake Michigan, part of a series of three triangulations of the artist’s current location and her birthplace in Puerto Rico, retraces the shape of the Bermuda Triangle with each new location as an opposing vertex. In doing so, Collazo-Llorens maps her personal history in North America geographically and mythologically, in relation to the stories of the various places where she has lived.
Unlike the loosely woven narrative of research and fiction in Unfolding the Triangle, the print media collection Comfortably Numb (2012) assaults the viewer with a single point of view. But in both works – and this is part of the artist’s larger project – the objective is to test or exercise the viewer’s cognitive mapping skills. In Unfolding the Triangle, we have followed too many threads in our tangled navigation of the web of tales and mythologies so that these fold back on themselves. Laid out along walls that form corridors, the viewer must process left and right while moving closer to read and further back to see. With the ricochet of mirrors in the interior of the video room, a virtual tunnel opens on an endless series of doorways projecting other imagined corridors.
But in Comfortably Numb, the viewer has little room to maneuver. In this new work the artist has assembled a grid of over 1500 framed images and texts, all taken directly from print media. Although difficult to discern immediately in our age of remediated digital images, here and there you can see a wrinkle in the thin paper of a magazine or the bleed-through of newsprint. In this work the artist has selected neither abstract drawing nor “unconfirmed sources” of data, but the subject of disaster as represented in the media. This subject appears in two ways: through images of tragedy, disaster, bodily harm, disease, and graphical symbols that evoke eruption or contamination; and also through texts – mostly typed and formatted by the artist – about numbers of deaths and injuries experienced in natural, biological, and political disasters. The artist confessed to having altered the numbers to exaggerate their magnitude – her research on “psychophysical numbing” having motivated the work’s completion in the present state.
Psychophysical numbing, the phenomenon in which we anaesthetize ourselves to the magnitude of disasters and tragedies, acts as a mechanism for coping with the inundation of such news items in the contemporary media world. In an interview last spring, the artist described her development of the work this way: “I was interested in the numbers. I started reading texts by sociologists, neurologists and psychologists, talking about our relationship to numbers and how our minds cannot understand numbers to a degree – and that’s a coping mechanism. By that I mean, we understand what it means for one person to die. We feel it, but when we hear that a hundred people die, we can’t really multiply that feeling by a hundred, nevertheless a hundred thousand, and of course if we did, we would totally kill ourselves. [So it’s] the same thing with everything that’s happening in the world. This [work] started as a way of me dealing with all these horrendous things that were [happening]….”3 In their analysis of psychological studies on the importance of affect for decision making, Paul Slovic and his colleagues write, “Our cognitive and perceptual systems seem designed to sensitize us to small changes in our environment, possibly at the expense of making us less able to detect and respond to large changes. As the psychophysical research indicates, constant increases in the physical magnitude of a stimulus typically evoke smaller and smaller changes in response.”4 As a result, disasters that are not proximate to us, and which are much larger than phenomena we typically encounter, require considerable effort to comprehend in their actual scale.
The artist’s intervention in Comfortably Numb resists the kind of narrative cognitive mapping of Unfolding the Triangle. In this new work, the magnitude of 1508 discrete images – many of them with content trimmed in such a way that the mind must fill-in the missing letters or shapes and each framed by thin, black plastic and behind a faintly reflective glass – frustrates any easy interpretation of the work. Add to this the fact that gallery assistants randomly arranged the tiled images and texts during the work’s installation, and the complexity of the overall object increases. Despite her use of found print graphics in this piece, Comfortably Numb resembles the artist’s paintings in Test series (not included in the exhibition).
In these, Collazo-Llorens presents her concept of “mindscapes” – dense, complex diagrams that force the attentive viewer to navigate within their structures. Like Comfortably Numb, these paintings combine mark-making that resembles written language, which the brain processes serially, and an abstract overall design, which is taken in all at once. As the brain switches between these perceptual and cognitive tasks, it slows. My own experience of standing before Comfortably Numb was one of temporary blindness; the work is simply too much to comprehend.
A series of aluminum panels with texts, ESCaperucita & Little Flying Hood (2009-11), returns the viewer to a more soothing narrative as it points to the exit. But the bilingual and coded text tells the story as a dialogue that graphically encounters a storm of textual noise in later panels. Once again, the viewer must grapple with different orders of cognition rapidly to process the work. In each of the works in this exhibition, the artist presents puzzles of visual information, data collected and reorganized for us to shift through.
Jessica Santone is an Independent Scholar based in Chicago, where I teach Art History at Columbia College Chicago. View more articles by Jessica Santone.