by H.W. MacDonald
The California Redwood, Sequoia sempervirens, in the Cupressaceae family, is listed as endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species. One of the oldest and largest trees on earth, with acutely west coast vulnerabilities, this conifer has a steady relationship with fog, a most vital component in sustaining life, and a complicated, approach/withdraw relationship to fire.
Artist Molly Lowe creates an environment for these volatile ingredients to play out relational human themes in motion picture form. Redwood is an hour-long piece of moving photography and puppetry, a living dream where the artist’s memories are woven with another’s until neither belongs to either, and ownership goes purposefully adrift.
In conjunction with the film, Lowe sculpted 50 male and female masks from two pieces of clay, but she was not interested in mask work alone. Lowe is a painter and sculptor by training, and the film was a commission from Pioneer Works, the non-profit arts center for research and experimentation founded by artist, Dustin Yellin. Production took place both at his massive warehouse space in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY, and in the Northern California landscape where Lowe lived as a child. The project included collaboration and support from her family members there. According to the artist, there were primitive energies alive during the shoot and with all her familial eras present, a “new age healing” took place at the same time as the artistry. This comes across in the film.
The film can be approached as a progenitorial rumination on deep privacy, secrecy, and pain. Blood relations, lineage, inherited traits, the genetic code of emotions; these form the top notes of Redwood, with sexuality, shame, and abandonment shaping the bottom. Many of the mask faces convey total despair, bewilderment or danger, even in moments of innocence and feminine grace. We see male/female archetypal dynamics such as the hero, the everyman, or the villain in contrast with the maiden, the mystic and the survivor. A considerable amount of shadow work is employed with both light and steam, alongside detailed puppetry, costumery and meticulous set design. The tones shift and bend, but are brim with distortion in the visual sensibility, the sound experience, and the dramatic content of the protagonist’s circumstances. There are moments (two) building up to mask removal, symbolizing an encounter with true love, however brief. How Lowe was able to mold and paint the masks so they conveyed various changing emotions, most of them troubling, is perhaps her most effective filmic trait. With the outturn of lips dumbfounding her visage, mouth agape in a hazy pulse of electronic bass, we recognize the descent of our heroine’s emotion.
Drowning is a theme Lowe’s characters explore, either under debt, the thumb of another, or waterlogged by depression and drink. Silhouettes are peered at in private while unseemly behavior frightens the ensemble cast repeatedly. Sexual failure, violation, violence, the virgin/whore complex, the sapphic code, the mundane marriage; these and other enchanting themes of American splendor show male-dominated land use, predatory silencing, and genetic inheritance. What is done to the younger is doomed to echo in disgrace. More than one of the innocent family members, clearly in generational danger, portray pure innocence while masked. Sometimes families show each other the most fearsome of human conduct.
The pretty painted detailing of the masks is a fine medium in and of itself. The same goes for Lowe’s futuristic headsets full of LED and nostalgia, pleasing in their sculptural form. We see an abstract form of puppetry when hospital nurses’ and doctors’ stark white masks are projected upon with the old woman’s mnemonic, round like the other characters, but bright and bobbling all over, dizzy, trying to touch down. The patient is bound to the bed by memory-filled tubing and in a fit of frustration pushes against her attending’s body, fighting with the remembrance of someone, the projected face circling in. Doctor becomes digitized marionette, patient a puppeteer. Then, a birthing ritual is performed in a glowing pool of water, bellies protruding, both females pregnant with warped impressions, able to give something to the other, but the viewer knows not what. We know the lives have altered once the ritual is complete, and neither generation holds title to any family memory.
Another effective scene is of a woman sewing a ripped open teddy bear. We see her silhouette in the action of pulling her needle the entire length of her arm, the motion of her hand at the top of her reach, a familiar action in feminine grace. This is a poignant reveal for Redwood, followed by a natural progression of eruptive force. These are the second and third times we experience ceremonial forms of quaking and shaking.
Lowe described wrapping the digital camera with multicolored scarves or using candy wrappers for sound effects. It was a highly “intuitive” process and the actors would play their parts for one scene and perform the role of a gaffer or boom or grip in the next, significant jumps back and forth or behind the camera, in front, on top, below. It sounded like a balancing act of the highest order. Although she recounted the limited time they had as stressful, it was clear this film-making team struck a chord in those moments of measured chaos, capturing plenty of material for Lowe to sift through. She preferred editing to the actual production, which makes sense for this artist; the editing room is where most creativity will happen for her, where she can adjust every angle.
Her team was comprised of skilled professionals, people she admired, those she knew she could depend on to perfect direction of photography, such as the two cinematographers, Bartosz Nalazek and Dagmar Weaver-Madsen. Vision is blurry in this film, and audibly matched by the work of Simon Doom frontman, Simon O’Connor, with accompaniment from Acrylics duo, Jason Klauber and Molly Shea. Sound designer, William Flynn, arranged the effects so that ethereal chanting and contorted harmonies could ease the congested pathways of Lowe’s experimental memory bank. Listen for the ragtime moment, and see the rhythm of socks and feet.
If fog and fire are the elements necessary for our nation’s oldest tree to survive, it stands to reason that intrinsic human polarities offer the same. What here can be hot, what here is cold or cloudy? The artist condenses memories until they take fluid form, diluted, distilled, refined, like a fortified potion. Antidote or poison, ecologically speaking, this household and its descendants rely heavily on both. This, of course, is our universal intricacy.
The high wall at 1708 Gallery has been coated with a charcoal grey-black color. Lowe’s masks pervade the scene from top to bottom. It looks like a dark lake, all these lonesome people afloat and next to each other peering out. At first, the viewer relates to faces staring back, gloved hands and robotic arms reaching from the surface, a relatively simple and intriguing introduction to Lowe’s artwork. See then how Redwood opens on a black sandy beach, mist surrounding epic oceanic boulders, beginning the series of foreshadow and repetition. If we see it once, trust it will return again before the end. Observe the very last scene of the film, footsteps of the divine feminine escapee, where you yourself will be transmuted from within the interior of a motion picture back out again to a gallery of reality, onto a wall of faces hard in the paint.
Helen Wallace MacDonald is the curator at the Farfields Farm Center for Georgical Jubilism, an arts fellowship and field research center located in the Blue Ridge Mountains near Afton, Virginia. She received her BA in history at Sarah Lawrence College, a certification in horticulture from UCLA, and is currently a master of arts candidate in museology at Johns Hopkins University. She founded the arts collective, Last Night Dreamers, and is associate curator of the American Pavilion Library of Muses at Art-Villa Garikula Center for Contemporary Arts, the exhibition space and establishment for unconventional education in the Kaspi Region of the Republic of Georgia.
ext. 1708 is an on-line journal funded through a grant from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, which also supports 1708 Gallery’s exhibitions. 1708 Gallery’s mission is to promote new art, a mission achieved via a rotating schedule of exhibitions that presents a diverse range of projects. In relation, 1708 Gallery strives to educate the public about Contemporary art and employs artist talks and didactic text panels to illustrate the exhibiting artist’s issues, themes, and modes of working. In an effort to further expand opportunities for education, this journal features essays, interviews and other writings that provide context for 1708 Gallery’s exhibitions and promote further dialogue about contemporary art. 1708 Gallery works with a range of writers, from graduate students to professional writers, to allow for multiple voices and experiences to contribute to this project.