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Suvan Geer lives in a world of transition and disappearance. It's the same world we all live in, of course, except Geer is acutely aware of these movements. She often uses the term "ephemeral," which literally means "lasting one day" and refers to any fleeting or briefly existing thing, from a sunset to feelings of happiness. The idea that something was once here and is now gone intrigues Geer and compels her installations, sculptures and drawings. I met with her at her Santa Ana studio, located in a deeply wooded cul-de-sac surrounded by myriad chirping birds; it's the perfect spot for a woman whose artworks often include trees and who finds a deep kinship with nature and time.
"Native Americans refer to trees as 'the standing nation,'" she says. "Like humans, they stand on the ground and reach up to the heavens. And like humans, they live in groups and are sometimes isolated. We're always attracted to that single tree standing alone or at the highest peak—how does it survive all by itself? And we ask ourselves the same question: 'How do we get by when there's no one near us?' And yet we endure."
In her installation piece Family Tree, Geer superimposes photographs, taken by her father long before she was born, onto hanging silk. Behind that silk is an image of three intersecting trees that used to grow on her property, but that have since vanished. The charcoal she used to create the drawing is the burned bark from a forest decimated by fire. She places a fan to softly blow the silk as the images change on the projector. The attraction is not just to the trees, but also to the moments frozen in time.
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"There's something about still images—things that seem permanent," Geer says. "Nothing else in life is like that. Everything changes. So, I've been trying over the past several years to create with still images that sense of the ephemeral that memory has. We always think things are permanent in our minds, but that's just an illusion."
Much of her recent work has used photographs, making them transition even though that's not what they're supposed to do. Photographs are our memorials, she says, and Geer often ruminates on the idea of what's left behind, especially in regard to what's left of us. Dust is one such remnant, and her latest pieces are made from dust gathered by friends and family mixed with beeswax and "smooshed" together, as she says, over photographs. The result is what she calls a "poof," much like that animated cloud that briefly remains once the subject is gone from the frame.
"The poof is this thing that's not the character, but his vanishing," she notes. "How do you represent that disappearance? These shapes are those poofs, the transition between 'I'm here' and 'I'm not here.' And I like the whole idea of residue, how it becomes the thing that people look at. Using the dust itself as part of the image makes it turn into something else; it's something, but it's nothing—because it's all nothing, yet it's meaningful to us."
"Ashes to ashes, dust to dust" immediately comes to mind, and Geer's penchant for time and departing objects once led her to cemeteries. Tagging along with a photographer friend, she began to notice what time did to the memorials of final resting spots, the places where time should stop yet never does. The result was Stones, a book filled with images that generate a host of questions. She pointed out two side-by-side headstones: One reads, "Husband," and the other reads, "Wife"—nothing else.
"What is it that they're trying to remember?" Geer mused. "It's not when they lived; it's not their names—the relationship was the only thing that was important to them."
Another reads, "_other," the first letter or two worn away; we don't know if it's "mother" or "brother." Others have words obscured by overgrowth, by the sinking of the stone's corner. One simply says, "Loyal."
"How hard we try to save something and try to remember it, and time changes everything," she says. "It completely obliterates what we're trying to do."
With all of this focus on impermanency, I ask if she's a wily nomad who can't stay in one place. She laughs.
"I've been married for 40 years, and I've lived here for 25 years; this is just how I see the world," she concludes. "When I meet people, I feel as if I'm touching moths, like this is such a brief moment. There's nothing that seems forever to me. Everything's always in time. The first day that my mom and I arrived in California, I was 4, and we had a huge earthquake. I'd never experienced that, and it was pretty earth-shattering. 'The earth isn't stable' was one of my first senses. But I don't find that frightening. There's something dynamic about thinking everything is in motion. It's so alive. I want art to be alive. I want that sense of instability and transition—because that's life."
This article appeared in print as "Time Is on Her Side: Suvan Geer talks about fleeting things and the solace of instability."