Review – Neil Goldberg’s “Anthology” at SECCA – Micro Moments Out of Time

By Chad Nance
Opening on Friday July 18th, Neil Goldberg’s “Anthology” is one of the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art’s most engaging installations in a while. Shows like “Graphic Design” and “Eric Fertman: A Comic Turn” were intellectual and aesthetic achievements, yet neither really spoke to the heart in the way that “Anthology” does. There is an intimacy and dynamic personality to Goldberg’s work as well as a real sense of emotional danger. Working with an almost Kubrick-like understanding of narrative within a static frame as well as the master’s over-arching objectivity, Goldberg and curator Cora Fisher have brought together a collection of works that function both as an outsider’s view of the world and an intensely intimate autobiography that encompasses emotions from joy and laughter to despair and grief. “Anthology” is the most fundamentally humanistic work of contemporary art to be featured at SECCA in a great while.

ten-and-a half years of to-dos - neil goldberg
ten-and-a half years of to-dos – neil goldberg

Part of SECCA’s solo series, “Anthology” includes video, photography and objects from the last 20 years of Goldberg’s work and debuts Ten-and-a-half-years-of-To-Dos, a five-channel audiovisual installation.

Walking down the steps into the gallery the first work is “Surfacing”(2010-2011). Essentially this is a 15 minute video loop consisting of a series of close-ups shot on digital video featuring pedestrians in New York City emerging from the subway system. The craft here is solid and does not get in the way of the subjects. The tight shots are composed well and by choosing to use a long lens Goldberg is able to keep the subjects in focus while the surroundings remain out of focus creating a real sense of depth, but slowing the subject down in space enough that we can engage with the face for a few moments. It is those moments that the narrative comes alive in the eyes of the pedestrians.

Humanity is in the eyes. More than simply intelligence and “spirit”, there is something about the hungry way that eyes can sometimes take in information that reads as vibrantly alive. When I played linebacker we were taught to watch the quarter-back’s eyes to see where he was going to throw the ball. Boxers look one another in the eye so that they can pick up the, almost imperceptible, signal for violent intent in order to develop their own defense and counter offensive strategies in a few nanoseconds.

In “Surfacing” this complex process plays itself out in the eyes of the subjects as the viewer gets to voyeuristicaly invade the personal space of another human being while they make some basic decisions about what to tell their body to do next. At the same time part of their brain is hard at work on some problem that isn’t as fundamental as “go right” or “go left”. A situation, mystery, question, or task list that is that is running through the mind out of “time” while the body is doing what it has been programmed by experience to do.

Philosopher Henri Bergson argued that in spite of whatever perceptions we have, our bodies are continually acting and reacting to the world independently of those perceptions. “Surfacing” provides a master’s class in Bergson and at the same time remains entertaining providing room for empathy along with introspection.

Ten Minutes with x02180-A is a 10 minute video loop shot in 2006 at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Goldberg placed a lilac bush to the left of frame and locked off the camera to capture, as he puts it:

“What it looked like to watch people sense something. Focusing specifically on the faculty of smell… Not as many people leaned it to smell it as I expected, but I was happy to document ten minute of X02180-A‘s [the lilac’s id number] day and to sample the wide variety of human/plant interactions on display.”

ten-and-a half years of to-dos - neil goldberg
ten-and-a half years of to-dos – neil goldberg

While only a few people smell the bush and respond with varying degrees of mock and true rapture, others have their picture taken in front of the bush, and one man seems to stand for an unnaturally long time while displaying a collection of awkward body language that almost makes it look like he’s trying to pretend that the lilac bush isn’t there… like he’s ignoring the bush.

The result, again, has a voyeuristic quality and is an expanding narrative where Goldberg is beginning to open up his journey through human experience. He raises the stakes here stealing more than just a fleeting glimpse of a single life as he did with “Surfacing” and now providing us with complete vignettes as if he is some kind of urban Jane Goodall baiting the beasts to come to him with the lilac.

“Hallelujah Anyway No.4” is a one minute, 30 second video loop shot on the M15 bus in Manhattan with a consumer model hi 8 camera in 1995. Goldberg took a seat at the front of the bus and filmed people boarding. The riders he shows us in the minute-thirty range from the spry granny who thrust herself onto the bus in, what can only be termed, an entrance to the older woman retaining all of her formal dignity in a hat and heels. Narrative and character take center stage here in what Goldberg said he intends to be a “dance”. Watching senior citizens meet and over-come the challenge of steep, bus steps has a built in story of human beings being able to overcome adversity. There is also a sense of melancholy, absent phony pathos or navel gazing, that allows the viewer to confront mortality without being overwhelmed by it. There is something about the every-day dance of boarding a bus that removes sentimentality and lets the viewer bring their own baggage to the work rather than being bullied into finding “meaning”.

Debuting at this exhibition is Goldberg’s “Ten-and-a-Half Years of To-Dos”. This work is a 49 minute video loop made of a single, wide-screen shot and five separate channels of audio. The single image is carefully composed with a blown out background that allows the green foliage and dark branches of a large tree define themselves in an almost painterly way. Five young, male performers dressed only in cuffed blue-jeans. These guys read off ten and a half years of Goldberg’s “To-Do” lists, each on their own audio channel.

The voices take on the quality of a cacophony, but if the viewer allows themselves to focus on different elements and subjects within the frame, the occasional clear phrase will cut through the five voices in a random way that feels improvised.

The imagery and symbolism in this piece is more overt than many of the others. Trees carry great portent from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil from Sunday school to Yggdrasil the World Tree who holds all of reality in her three, deep roots to the Bodhi tree where final wisdom hides among the branches. If “Hallelujah Anyway” is the dance number of “Anthology”, then “Ten-and-a-Half Years of To-Dos” is the all-out choral explosion.

These works are all very objective from the surveillance society feel of “Surfacing” to the controlled artifice of “Ten and a Half Years”. The back side of the show is where Goldberg allows the audience to watch the watcher. “My Parents Read Dreams I’ve Had About Them” is composed like American Gothic with Goldberg’s parents framed with enough headroom to force the audience to pay attention. The very imprecision of the framing draws the viewer’s attention and allow his parent’s wonderful faces and expressions to play themselves right on the center-line of the frame as they read Goldberg’s dreams he’s had about them. This provides an illuminating and unique look into a family. We see the son’s unconscious id on full display and at the same time see how the parents react to this human that they brought into the world. The viewer sees an objective, third-person view of two people reading the most subjective, first-person view of themselves that it would be humanly possibly to discover- all played out in a fascinating 8 and a half minutes. Every response or rejoinder his parent’s could possibly have had plays out on their faces.

ten-and-a half years of to-dos - neil goldberg
ten-and-a half years of to-dos – neil goldberg

By 2005 Golberg’s mother had passed away and he shot his last project with his father. “My Father Breathing Into a Mirror” is a one minute video loop of his dad breathing onto a mirror. The condensation from his “Proof of life” spreads out along the edge of a small mirror over and over allowing the viewer to examine this last “breath” over and over again as we realize that there are subtleties, nuances, and individual micro-moments in even the most basic of human actions.

The passing of his father led Goldberg to the only two pieces in the exhibition that are not video. One is the hearing-aid his father used plated completely in gold. The other is a stunning photograph of the 1993 Toyota Camry that Goldberg inherited from his father. In order to get the photograph, Goldberg parked it in the spot where his Father stood while creating “Breathing into a Mirror” and filled the car with brown, gold, and red Autumn leaves. This single “still” image contains as much narrative information and thoughtful symbolism as the other pieces and never seems to be self-indulgent. The feeling of stasis and symbols of creeping decay make “My Father’s Camry Filled with Leaves” a meditative consideration of mortality and the power of memory and grief.

The remaining pieces are video installations of Goldberg, himself, looking at the camera and imitating his father saying the common Yiddish expression, “Oy” with varying styles of inflection and video taken in his studio that features critiques of the other works in “Anthology”. I’ve never seen an art installation that also featured an examination of the meaning and quality of the very work featured in the show. It is a fascinatingly deconstructionist presentation and a searing and brave look into Neil Goldberg’s creative life. The danger with these pieces is real. By allowing other, strong personalities to get between him and the audience while explaining to the audience why they feel the work could be improved takes real artistic courage and risks under-cutting all of the work as a whole. It is a daring move and one that sends the viewer away from “Anthology” not only with an understanding of Neil Goldberg, but also an admiration for who he is as a human being who offers up his own eyes and allows the world to look through them… even when he’s looking in the mirror.

“Anthology” runs through October 5th, 2014 and deserves a visit to SECCA. Goldberg’s show is engaging, intelligent, and provides viewers a unique experience in autobiographical narrative that you will not find anywhere else. Above all, “Anthology” is a meditation on empathy and humanity free from the manacled constraints of linear time.