Jen DeNike, The Scrying Trilogy, The Company, Chinatown, September 17, 2010
Anyone who has watched the TV show Charmed knows that scrying is a form of magical divination practiced by witches and other paranormal types. Dangling a crystal on a string over a map, the Charmed Ones could find the exact location of their enemies. In folklore, scrying can be practiced with a variety of media, including glass, mirrors, stones, ink, water, fire, smoke, and the stereotypical crystal ball. It is used to gain insight into situations, to see into the future or the past, and to find lost objects or people. An interesting passage from Wikipedia describes the process as follows:
“…the scryer begins a free association with the perceived images suggested. The technique of deliberately looking for and declaring these initial images aloud, however trivial or irrelevant they may seem to the conscious mind, is done with the intent of deepening the trance state, wherein the scryer hears their own disassociated voice affirming what is seen within the concentrated state in a kind of feedback loop. This process culminates in the achievement of a final and desired end stage in which rich visual images and dramatic stories seem to be projected within the medium itself, or directly within the mind’s eye of the scryer, like an inner movie. This overall process reputedly allows the scryer to ‘see’ relevant events or images within the chosen medium.”
Jen DeNike has taken this rich framework and used it as the inspiration for her current exhibition, The Scrying Trilogy, the documentation of which is now on view at The Company. The complete exhibition, which included a sculptural installation and two multimedia performances, could only be seen at the opening.
I entered The Company’s cramped main gallery on Friday night to be confronted by the presence of a ballerina from the Los Angeles Ballet. She danced slowly and continuously for the entire duration of the two-hour opening, often pirouetting, and often en pointe. Visitors who squeezed into the roughly 12-by-12-foot space got an intimate encounter with a physically gifted performer who is normally only viewed from a distance. The effect was like looking at a wild animal in a cage; the room was electrified by her presence. Behind her in one corner sat an array of crystals, carefully placed on a pedestal and on the ground. On the large wall opposite the crystals, footage of the same ballerina going through similar moves was screened. On yet another wall, the top corner was taken up by a small projection of the same footage.
After getting over the shock of the work’s physicality, I sat down in a corner to watch the dancer. Her presence interacted with the large projection against the wall, sometimes forming a duet. At other times, the projected images imprinted themselves on her body as she moved, so that she became a moving tableau of her own moving image. Simultaneously, she cast a shadow of herself on the wall where the large projection took place. These overlapping images, constantly interacting, became a mesmerizing circle of unfolding visions, inducing something not unlike an aesthetic or visionary trance. The crystal objects in one corner and the uninterrupted projection high up in another seemed to act as stabilizing anchors.
Moving into the project space (formerly a one-car garage), I found the third part of the trilogy, titled Hydromancy (the other two parts are called Another Circle and Crystal Forest). Here, three concentric circles of black bowls were laid out on the ground, each one filled with water. A skinny naked girl stood in the middle, holding a circular mirror up to her face. Whereas Another Circle was alive with the flesh of this world, Hydromancy was characterized by a strange and mystic stillness. Her face obscured, the girl peered around her and toward the audience, her appearance recalling the mysterious mirror-faced figure in Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon. As in that film, the performer’s motions were slight, repetitive, and didn’t seem to particularly go anywhere, becoming all the more haunting because of it. (Note that photographs of the performer were not permitted; when she took breaks, she laid the mirror in the center of the bowls, forming a sculptural installation.)
While this trilogy worked beautifully as a formal meditation, a discussion with the artist yielded a few more interesting references. The magic-infused crystals that make up the Crystal Forest were hand-harvested from a site in Arkansas, near the prison where a friend of hers, innocent of the crime for which he was convicted, is being held on death row. With regard to the mirror performance, DeNike referenced Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, a site that she has visited and found to be imbued with a tangible energy. Looking at the circle of bowls and mirrors beautifully laid out in The Company’s garage/project space, she expressed the desire to activate space in a similar fashion.
Speaking of activating space, I have to give props to The Company for continuing to make ingenious use of its tiny, odd set of disjointed spaces located in the ground level of the historic Moytel building on Yale Street. Every show that I have seen there has enacted a miraculous and cogent transformation of two rather incidental rooms into a vibrant site for art.