Only what is shown to us is a prompt I used to begin writing about the exhibition I curated, The Shifting Space Around Us, Megan and Murray McMillan at Ortega Y Gasset Projects in Brooklyn (August 27 – September 25, 2016). I viewed the installation while pausing the video every few moments to write a detailed, but unornamented description of what unfolds in the two-channel video installation–a transcription. The exercise itself resonates with Murray McMillan’s point that because the narrative elements of the piece don’t offer a conclusion, and the setting and other details of the video image are somewhat surprising, even confounding, conversations sometimes stick on the technical specs or production and location details of the work. And though they are open and very generous about describing their process–including the singular experience of shooting this piece in a locomotive roundhouse, the enthusiastic staff and extraordinarily devoted crew, and other commentary about the shoot–the artists don’t really want to talk about any of that. They want those questions to be superseded by the experience of watching the work. They want the work to speak for itself.
So in addition to an analytical piece of writing, and photographic documentation of the exhibition, I also made this different kind of document, a complete transcription of the work in its entirety. My document is not a photograph, video, nor an analysis, but a more abstract document that prompts the viewer to imagine or remember watching the work.
Only what is shown to us
a telling of The Shifting Space Around Us, Megan and Murray McMillan
1. Two videos are projected directly abutting on perpendicular walls. In the projection on the right, two people wheel a heavy wooden crate that has bright light shining through the gaps between the panels. Four columns of light behind them reveal tall numbered metal gates. A TV antenna extends from the crate. A great roaring sound begins, and as the crate is rolled toward the camera, the camera moves away.
On the edges of the frame, parts of large metal machines arise. Then two headlights emerge, and we see two locomotives. There is more light, and another identical cart behind the first is being pushed by three more people. The trains stand there, hulking with their lights shining into the camera. The camera pulls back, and a third train is revealed. The camera’s perspective makes the space ambiguous, though clearly vast. Is this an interior or exterior? A pink lens flare emerges in the left of the shot like an orb.
As this man and woman and three other men with another crate behind the pair push further, we see they are on a narrow track that crosses a great chasm. It is a turntable in a locomotive roundhouse–a mechanical building made to service and turn locomotive engines around. Yet this is not what it’s being used for. Instead these people guide their unknown cargo on the narrow turning track inches from the chasm.
They stop and the woman comes to the front of the crate. She wears an overcoat. She hoists open one panel, and a man wearing an overcoat and an Irish cap joins her. They can barely reach the panel. It seems heavy and precarious. The inside of the cart is reflective, lined in mylar. The woman opens a side panel and they both climb up and inside. They’re in the cart up to their waists.
Inside there are old suitcases. The couple begins to shift them around, relocating some and opening others. The woman picks up a plant. There’s similar activity in the other cart. Light comes from inside and the reflective surface causes the inside of the cart to light the space around them. Abruptly we hear a symphony of crickets. The woman seems to have switched on this sound from inside the cart. They keep unpacking items such as houseplants and what seem like toys (although we can’t see them closely) and placing them on top of the outside of the crate. They do this calmly and with intention.
At the point when the camera’s movement resumes, we realize that it must have stopped. We continue to roll smoothly backwards and they roll with us. They continue to unpack, but they are rolling, and they don’t know it. Muffled music comes from some of the paraphernalia, 1940s jazz. The people don’t respond to it. It becomes part of the texture of a broader soundscape that includes the sound of the city in the distance and the mechanism of the turntable.
By now we see more trains. When did they come into the frame? The locomotives vary in shape. They seem flat because they face the camera head-on. The leftmost one is simply a rectangle covered in red and white angled stripes. The second has a gray rectangular cab with a black and yellow striped skirt plate. The rightmost train is rounded. Its profile is an oval, but its headlight is so bright its other details are indiscernible. The panels extend like four arms and the whole crate transforms into a mechanical sculpture, a robot, a space station, a home, a mirror.
We go back further still and then we see the sky. It is a night cityscape. Then the couple who were previously at the rear, but have now rotated on the turntable closer to the camera, attach small satellite-dish-like structures to the top of the crate. And when they do this, the movement of the track they are on changes course in a sweeping mechanical movement. It seems the earth is opening up. The two crate structures are revealed next to one another and you see they have many interior enclosures, small expanded geometric arrays of mirrored panels, like lunar landing modules. The structures are rotating now independently of the rotating track, and they have personality. They seem to be dancing.
Then the rotation reverses, the camera moves closer ever so slowly and we don’t notice the movement, but suddenly we are closer, as if our consciousness was carried by it. The people are working hard to unfurl the entire array of mirrored panels inside the module. They are very bright now, and they have erected on top of the antenna photographic umbrellas used to diffuse light. Many of them sprout from the top of the modules. We see the city behind them, a giant interruption in the array of trains, like a much larger spaceship.
Then, without pausing, they begin folding the modules back together. The lighting from their own umbrella makes them seem otherworldly, or like they are pasted into this scene. (We were convinced they are real people in a real space, but at this point we begin to doubt our original assumption. We doubt all of it. In fact we doubt everything that’s ever happened to us. What could this strange pageant be? Could it be. )
In the city behind them there are nightclub lights that resemble police searchlights. They search wildly and cross one another on some course, the route of which is intentional but unknown to us. They sweep the volumes of the city and sky, crossing and reaching much further than it seemed they would be able to reach.
We look back again at our protagonists and they’ve packed up everything except the antenna. Suddenly they are shrinking quickly away from us. (Though we’ve been studying them, we haven’t had a chance to understand their task. We thought we’d always be able to look back and see what they were up to. But now they are zooming away from us. This zoom out is heartbreaking. We realize we love them, their modules, and their mission.)
2. For many minutes, in the projection on the left, the frame is mostly dark with a vague texture covering the top right quadrant; a network of triangular wrinkles, a close-up of silver skin. There’s movement and the light shifts, but there’s no other action.
Then the skin-like texture is swept away and we can infer that this a view from inside the crate, the panel having just been opened. Abruptly the camera revealing this scene is picked up, and it’s in the hands of the actor who wears an Irish cap. He turns the camera and shows the collection of objects: a small disco ball spinning, a fishbowl with rocks in it, a fake blue hydrangea, a ceramic model of Saturn, a real cactus with spiky fingers, a magnifying glass, another orb-like shape emitting a blue light, and a radio playing 1940s jazz. A muffled voice in another audio recording says “…travels 25,000 miles or 400,000 kilometers around…” In the distance the other couple with their crate can be seen erecting their array of light-diffusing umbrellas, and beyond that there is the city.
Later other objects in the collection are revealed through the magnifying glass; a plastic model of the moon, lit up, grassy plants, fake holly, cellophane.