||For those who don't know, CEPA Gallery's Window on Main Street is an outdoor display space rescued from an unused storefront in the facade of the Market Arcade Building. As public art places go - and Buffalo has precious few - it is unique in that it often is dedicated to installations featuring video or film.
Anya Lewin and Lara Odell's "The White Bear and Other Unwanted Thoughts" intelligently activates the two windows of the storefront by means of video monitors in three distinct spatial settings. One unites actual space and the video illusion; another allows viewing only through peep holes; and a final configuration has two large monitors set face to face in the opposing windows on each side of the former entryway.
At the very front of each of these gracefully curving windows, two large video monitors introduce the two characters of this little mock-fable - the artists dressed in brown and white bear costumes, cuddled up feigning hibernation. The floor of the darkened space is neatly covered with materials that not only suggest the bears' natural habitats but also heighten the happy illusion that we are looking into cozy dens with dimly glowing bears within.
The spatial condition is abruptly changed with the four peep holes. Suddenly, we are acutely aware that we are observers looking in on a private event of some sort. The bears, seen on two tiny monitors, now roll past through a black nonspace like somnambulists. In one case, a bear is seen methodically pulling out its own stuffing. On other monitors, the bears become rapid-fire images in flicker-film sequences.
The final setup details what's going on. A legend printed on the now blocked-off door describes the brown bear settling in for its winter sleep, trying desperately not to think of the white bear - "the unwanted thought." But, "as its heart slows to 8 beats a minute," the brown bear's brain is inundated with thoughts of the white bear.
Obviously, this is a disturbed hibernation. This unrest is visually carried forward on two large video monitors facing off across the entry way. They feature fractured narratives of vaudevillian flavor in which the bears appear together and separately in various locales, wondering through woods or crossing the great expanse of some Western landscape, or simply posing before one of Buffalo grain elevators.
Mostly, the bears seem slightly mystified, like lost creatures comically sniffing around strange terrain. One repeated sequence has the bears racing across the screen from left to right in the crazed spirit of a Keystone Kops movie.
With the videos, it's clear that the bears are the twin personifications of one psyche. It isn't the divided psyche according to Freud with id and ego dressed up as fuzzy bears, however. There is far too much playfulness and self-mockery for Freud's dark view of the disturbed human mind. Nor do the bears suggest the old deep-throated angst of the 20th century - the all-threatening authentic "bear" of consciousness as created by Sartre and the existentialists. Lewin and Odell's creatures are too breezy for such mental gyrations.
Like so many contemporary media pieces, this work projects a too-cool-to-care attitude that by its very denial of any real engagement with big ideas creates an unsettling undercurrent. In this postmodern view, broken psychic connections have as much validity as any imagined unities. These silly bears suggest that you can never really get a handle on the self. Instead, you are obliged to skate along its bumpy surface.
Lewin and Odell's piece suggests that that you can never get the upper hand (or upper paw) on your own consciousness. Just at that moment when you think you have the self in proper perspective, you spot yourself in the act of observing your self and the whole process crumbles into a series of ever-changing approximations. You only come to grips with the self through guises, when you're not "playing" yourself.
Since ancient times, identification with real living bears have been stock ritual behaviour in tribal societies from British Columbia to Siberia to the Japanese Islands. These peoples would, through emotional homage followed by grisly sacrifice, assume the bear's being in order to set emotions in order and assuage guilt for the ongoing killing of these intelligent beasts.
Without the codified ritual and without the violence, Lewin and Odell's make-believe bears likewise scatter the uneasiness to which the human mind is prone. The installation is apparently tensionless, comic, nonthreatening. But it is, nevertheless, a serious effort to grapple with the burden of consciousness.