Video Work | Photo/Installations | Documentary Projects

Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, MA
April 5-June 3, 2001

Denise Marika: Unearthed

by Susan L Stoops

Widely considered an innovator in the field of video installation, Denise Marika has been commissioned to create the first projected (rather than painted) image for the Wall at WAM. This series of temporary projects is sited on a second-story, 67-foot expanse in the museum's Renaissance Court, also the site of a permanently installed 6th century Roman mosaic. In Unearthed, Marika returns to a signature subject -- herself, nude -- to explore the conceptual, emotional, and physical conditions that have characterized creative endeavors throughout time. Over the past 15 years, Marika's video-based work has taken many different sizes and forms -- an operative human-size drawer, free-standing I-beams, the underside of concrete benches, and crosswalk signals at a pedestrian intersection. With Unearthed, her largest video-sound installation to date, Marika deepens her commitment to creating an art form that operates in the emotionally charged space between the public and the private. In a technically sophisticated juxtaposition of the present and past, the conditions of the contemporary artist that Unearthed explores -- isolation, vulnerability, anonymity, labor, control, repetition, limitations, and desire -- poetically converge with those of the artists who labored on the nearby "Worcester Hunt" mosaic 1500 years ago.

Although the video image we see was created off-site, the performative nature of its narrative engages us metaphorically in the process of the artist "at work." Incorporating real space, time and volume, Marika's video image of a woman attempting to construct a wall in clay coincides with the Museum's terra cotta wall in the Renaissance Court. We watch her, from "behind her back," starting in the middle of the museum's wall, as though she were going to finish that segment and move on to complete another part until she covered the entire expanse. But the actual narrative never takes us to that point of desired (or expected) closure. What we witness is a slow, labor-intensive process that is constantly thwarted by a perpetual state of incompletion complicated by Marika's dissatisfaction and physical limitations.

Immediately, the difficulty of spreading the wet, thick clay is apparent in the extremely physical task of pounding and pushing it across the surface of the wall, an image punctuated by the sound of her labored breathing. She works from an awkward crouched position in a confined space determined by how far she can reach in any direction (Marika likened it to working the soil in a segment of a garden). All the while, she must keep her balance atop a ledge (a video "place" that coincides with the bottom edge of the museum's second-story wall), at times having to carefully move out of her own way to reach for additional clay. Bursts of energy alternate periodically with moments of fatigue and the need to rest her head and shoulder against the wall.

For a while a majestic arc of brick red echoes the arched passageways of the Renaissance Court below. There is a brief pause in the action, as she works the last of the clay across the surface. But once she has covered as much wall surface as she can reach, the process is reversed and she aggressively begins to scrape away chunks of clay. As bits of clay occasionally fall below the visual field of the wall, we hear them land as though hitting the floor below.

In Unearthed, Marika is thwarted in her desire to cover entirely the wall or to return to a virgin surface, for clay residue marks much of the re-exposed wall. Her body also bears marks from red clay that read alternately as stains, scrapes, and drawing. This detail is the result of a recent formal development that includes Marika drawing onto the wall on which the video image is projected. As a result, her body is no longer an image on the wall but rather, it is absorbed into a multi-dimensional zone that fuses museum walI, video plane, and Marika's drawn marks

Time is also subject to multiple readings. Although the video repeats with no breaks and the narrative implies a never-ending process, Unearthed "begins" with an image of Marika throwing an initial clump of red clay onto a wall and "ends" with Marika, exhausted, making one final reach with both arms. But given the site of the piece within the museum and its 40-minute duration (the actual time it took Marika to cover and "uncover" the wall), Unearthed will be encountered both intentionally and unsuspectingly as well as from several locations and at various moments within the action. Whether you interpret her as constructing or uncovering the wall depends on when you enter the narrative. Inspired by the adjacent Roman mosaics, Unearthed and its repeating narrative pay homage to the cyclical nature (creation, deterioration, restoration) of the life of cultural artifacts.

Marika's deliberate yet primal gestures in Unearthed belong to a lineage of wall drawing — a tradition that begins with the Paleolithic paintings on the walls of the caves at Lascaux and extends to the sweeping gestures of Ana Mendieta's blood-covered arms and hands in her 1974 Body Tracks (Rastros Corporales). Despite her high-tech medium, Marika's figurative imagery is frequently characterized as "classical." The everyday anonymity of the nude body — here matter-of-fact and universal rather than idealized or sexually alluring — is reinforced by Marika's decision to face away from the gaze of the camera. Self-contained, her emotions are confined to her physical reality: fatigued muscles, increasingly labored breathing, and the frustrating limitations of her outstretched arms. In the self-directed marks of her clay-stained body, Marika, like Mendieta before her, declares herself as both creative agent and image.

Undoubtedly, Marika's use of the nude in a startlingly real yet larger-than-life scale raises comparisons with art historical nudes throughout the Museum's galleries. But perhaps, their less literal (i.e., non-photographic) treatment allows us to keep them at a safe and symbolic distance from the cinematic realism that characterizes Marika's contemporary nudes. Although the woman in Unearthed is self-absorbed in her task and seemingly unaware of our presence, the extremely public site of her nudity and otherwise private activity may create a degree of voyeuristic embarrassment or self-consciousness for some viewers. But consider this: might not Marika intend for us to see in her a mirror image of ourselves and our endeavors?