Michele Monseau’s “swing song”

Appeared in Winter 2009 Art Lies

Michele Monseau's "swing song" still (Courtesy McNay)

Generally, the landscapes at the McNay Art Museum, like landscapes everywhere, are anchored to the wall, the iron rule of the horizon line splitting land from sky at a satisfying and reassuring 90-degree angle to the floor. But Michele Monseau plays with our expectations of landscape etiquette with her video installation “swing song.” Mirror images of a reflective lake with a mountain in the background and dramatic clouds appear to dance with each other, rocking back and forth until you can feel a stomach-dropping sense of vertigo. Her rocking landscapes suggest a similar systemic failure to the rigidity of reality as the undulating Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapse filmed in 1940. She shot the video at Canyon Lake near San Antonio, though the location doesn’t matter so much as the mythic elements of water, land and sky.

As the motion grows more violent and chaotic, the sense of landscape collapses and abstract forms emerge like a moving Rorschach test. A cascading soundtrack of rushing water, the artist’s humming voice and a reverberating bass provide a soothing contrast to the turbulence of the video. The clouds appear to reach out from the sky with long, ghostly fingers. The intersection of earth and sky begins to twist into a cosmic vortex that contorts the horizon line into a spiral and, briefly, transforms the lake into a mountain. The landscape appears to morp, but it doesn’t. Gradually, the motion slows and the world comes to rest when the horizon line is restored. Short but intense, “swing song” shakes up our perceptions of reality by upsetting our ho-hum preconceptions about the conservatism of the landscape genre.

In her “Gone Again” series, Monseau focused on the slow passage of time, recording artist friends sprawled in sleeping positions in front of European monuments. In this new series of videos, Monseau employs camera motion to undermine the monumental subject matter and change the perspective. While filming, she moves the camera in a figure-8 motion. She does not manipulate the original image that much with software, except to reconfigure it into a split-screen single channel dual image with the original video flipped horizontally for perfect symmetry. Bouncing off the “seam” that binds the twin images, the subjects can appear at different times to be dancing, fighting, merging, kissing or crashing into each other.

Preceding and ending the video are slivers of “purple rain,” sparkling colored light streams caused by lens distortion that effectively frame the agitation of the video, providing a sense of calmness, like curtains opening and closing on a fairy tale cartoon. Monseau compares “swing song” to a “moving painting,” though the rise and fall of the action provides a more or less traditional storyline with a beginning, middle and end. Monseau uses video to make a traditional image behave more dynamically, violating the taboos of realistic video shooting to create a more complex visual metaphor. The multichannel soundtrack underscores the pent-up suspense building to a cathartic release we expect from traditional storytelling, though the narrative elements are primarily visual and emotional.

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