On ViewPioneer Works
March 11 – April 24, 2016
When a redwood tree is feeling fatalistic, it sends up saplings from its roots, surrounding its trunk. The shoots leap from life’s final breaths to begin fresh: “Old, new, dead, and unborn // one and the same.” Molly Lowe’s film Redwood, currently showing at Pioneer Works alongside an accompanying installation, begins with a description of this collapsing circle of life. The film goes on to examine human mortality and its relationship to memory and community, via an identity-blurring coming-of-age tale.
In the film, a younger woman—presumably the artist—undergoes a procedure in which her ailing grandmother’s memories will be transferred to her via some neon-glowing machinery that looks a bit like the Predator’s mask with extra fiber optic tubes attached. We learn that her grandmother mixes up faces of loved ones, jumbles the chronology of life events, and has a garbled sense of personal identity. The transfer begins, and we embark on a confusion-soaked, loose-associated jaunt through her life, with the younger woman as our avatar.
Lowe is also her grandmother’s avatar, and her grandmother hers, both reliving the wordless memories of the grandmother as her own. The characters in the film all don masks, depersonalizing them and nudging them from individuals into archetypes. The effect is reminiscent of the repetitive names of the Buendías of One Hundred Years of Solitude, distorting plotlines into a dreamy montage of scenes. Grandma’s story becomes a more general one: we see her painting on the beach, free and curious (Lowe’s grandmother was in fact a painter); hamming for family photos as a young girl; spending time with a boy who courts her, eventually exploring with him a bit more. She comes of age, starts a family with a husband—seemingly the same boy—who drowns himself in liquor. Family squabbles and the lust of the men onscreen for hooch, cooch, and business darken the mood of the second half of the film considerably, although a glorious scene of the adoration of a giant baby with a giant head threatens to steal the show.
Pioneer Works describes the film as “revolving around notions of mortality and immortality”—but the basic points made in this regard are mostly old hat: Grandma is mortal. She transcends her dying body, surviving by inhabiting a new physical plant, as her story hybridizes with a younger generation’s. This is nothing particularly new, nor is the arc of the coming-of-age drama, which is at times purposefully cliché but no more powerful.
Perhaps the glut of information that our computers can store has encouraged dreams of eternal life through having your data saved: this theme was also recently explored, in a cloning and time-traveling format, by Don Hertzfeldt in World of Tomorrow (2015). In Lowe’s version, the cinematic depiction of this process is voluptuously surreal—she has in the past called herself a “hardcore surrealist”—the artist building an ethereal world that these two minds inhabit together. The beauty of the film lies in the creation of a dreamscape, not inside any particular head but possible only in their communing, which encompasses whole lives and gestures at countless others.
Beyond the screen, artifacts from the film are installed throughout the first floor of Pioneer Works’s gorgeous old warehouse space. An enormous room houses a sculpture of a trunk section of a redwood tree, hanging hugely just above head-height from the ceiling. Also on view are a (much-Instagrammed) giant breast sand dune and a mossy hill that morphs into a bed, home to a fraught sex scene in the film. In the next room a set of masks and gloves (masks for hands?) hang alongside the film’s memory-transference head-coverings. To walk among these objects is to wander Lowe’s filmic dreamworld. The merging of the cinematic into our space is furthered by a scene of the doctors implementing the memory transfer, looking at a wall of masks just like the one the audience looks at—as if we are overseeing the procedure ourselves. Our identity dissolves at its edges, like the characters we watch, and we are invited to step into the environment of the dialogic memory splashed onscreen.
The credits thank Lowe’s real-life grandmother for being her “soulmate muse.” As Lowe’s character lives out her grandmother’s fate, we are reminded that empathy is key to the sharing of memory, and of selfhood. Without it souls die self-contained and alone. The simple act of listening, of paying attention, gives the gift of life after death. I left the show feeling bereft of new thoughts on (im)mortality. But the poignancy of Lowe’s connection to her grandmother is grand and generous: as we float through her dream of the world, we too become shoots of the old redwood tree.
SAMUEL FELDBLUM lives in North Carolina and writes across the South.