'Miracle Report' at Grand Central Arts Center: The Santa Ana Gallery Takes On People's Belief In the Impossible Saving the Day
Sometimes I miss believing in miracles. Not the "miracle of life"; that's just the order of things when you neglect to use birth control. I'm not talking about the pretty stuff you can take snapshots of with your iPhone; that's just nature. I don't mean pulling a rabbit out of a hat or sawing a woman in half; that's just sleight of hand. I'm most definitely not talking about "spiritual" ideas such as think-good-thoughts-and-only-good-things-come-your-way laws-of-attraction bullshit; that's just someone huckstering you.
I'm talking a real-life version of the theatrical deus ex machina: Everything is turning to excrement, and with a loud trumpet blast, the Almighty (who has been lurking in secret, watching as things go downhill) decides to ignore millions of other pending requests and reaches down to make things all right. Something unexpected, appearing out of nowhere—a surprise, shocking, God-like. The thought is comforting in so many ways. Who doesn't wish they could be an eternal child, tucked snuggly in bed, watching cartoons on TV, being looked over by a Loving Heavenly Parent, mug of hot chocolate on the nightstand nearby?
Too bad it doesn't exist, right?
Intrigue over the idea of the miraculous drove the investigation behind Julianne Swartz and Ken Landauer's video installation "Miracle Report," currently at Grand Central Art Center (GCAC) in Santa Ana. Under GCAC curator John Spiak's initiation, the pair interviewed dozens of people of all ages—from schoolchildren to old-age pensioners—filming them so that the speaker's faces aren't shown, guaranteeing anonymity and allowing them to talk freely. Shot against a black background, with only the interviewee's hands illuminated, the effect is as if someone had animated Albrecht Dürer's famous "Praying Hands" drawing, the final image freezing and going to gray as a pensive coda.
Maneuvering the dark gallery holding the installation is fairly easy, since the piece uses every iota of GCAC's electronic equipment—CD players, projectors, TVs, large speakers, headphones, tiny monitors, tall speakers—the baroque atmosphere masking what would otherwise have resembled a cluttered A/V nerd's room, with images coming at you from all corners: on the wall, on top of pedestals, tucked away in a corner, resting on the floor. One pair of hands floats and flies through the air, using sign language to tell its silent, un-subtitled story. Digits pop open like butterflies, flapping with gesticulation, while others are at rest, flat on a table as if tamping down their enthusiasm. Bracelets slide up and down wrists, watches catch glints of light, shirtsleeves are rolled up. Brown age spots litter the skin, thin, wrinkled fingers and swollen, arthritic joints contrasting sharply with smooth skin and dexterous, tiny hands.
The videos play simultaneously, with the cacophony of voices initially so confusing that you may wonder, "Where the hell do I start?" Start anywhere. It's impossible to hear every word, and it's clearly not important to Swartz and Landauer that you do. Like any discussion on an important topic, the pair realizes that much of what passes as thought is literally noise, and the stories are a mixed bag of intellect and naiveté.
Stories of escaped tragedy, religious proselytizing, people recovering from generally fatal illnesses, individuals falling in love despite the odds, philosophical discussions, and even two incidents of gun violence, one less than miraculous and ending in death. Despite that audio goulash, most of what comes from the screens are at low enough volume that all you'll hear is stray bits and pieces of conversation. If you want more substantive details, you'll need to lean in to the speakers, the intimate result akin to moving closer to an old friend who's whispering a secret in your ear.
If you tend toward faith in the unbelievable, some of the snippets will be encouraging, even hopeful. For the rest of us, the installation is less about spectacular things arriving here on holy business than it is about our obsessive desire to fit our "facts" into something that will allow us to believe that incidents in our life are somehow blessed, lying to ourselves in order to feel as though there's some order where only chaos exists. My walk-away was that the stories revealed the enormous strength of people under arduous physical and emotional circumstances, the power of coincidence and how it helps us fill in the blanks of situations we don't understand, and in the end, how the concrete physical and emotional aid of other individuals comes to our rescue far more often than God does. The milk of human kindness is the only true miracle I can think of, if we only nurture that within ourselves, instead of ascribing it to something outside us.
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