Fabulous Festival of Fringe Film 2008

Fear Remembered

Schedule 2008Tickets and DirectionsFabulous Festival of Fringe Film HomeOpening ReceptionA Pathless LandFear RememberedPeople's ChoiceHandmade Film WorkshopHarvesting the YukonExperiments With TruthTrue Meaning of PicturesTrip-Hop MetropolisAndrew Lampert: Projection Performance



July 31, 7pm, Durham Art Gallery
Continues to September 14

by Michael Tweed
Over the years Geoffrey Shea, in his own relaxed manner, has been creating a body of art in video and new media. The five installations he has gathered for this exhibition employ video in rather idiosyncratic ways to question not only the tales we tell ourselves, but the very telling itself. A small monitor resembling an old cathode ray TV tube rests snugly in a display case. A radar antenna projected on a wall circles while closer inspection reveals a heart-wrenching drama played out on a monitor embedded in an electrical outlet. A keyboard beckons visitors to attempt writing their own narrative on a virtual typewriter. Shifting between monitors, a pair of siblings attempt to relate their separate interpretations of a unique shared experience. Against a flowing backdrop of municipal bylaws is a video of Shea himself delivering a political speech. With these installations, Shea does far more than question contemporary philosophical and literary theory. For while probing the ways in which we individually and collectively interpret the world, the artist cannot help but reveal the intensely personal struggles we all face.

It is unavoidable: life is rife with doubt and questions. Nevertheless, even in the most mundane of tasks—rising from bed in the morning, tying a shoelace or simply opening a door—our lives reveal a confidence and certainty so sure that we question our ability only in the most extreme of circumstances (for example the debilitation of a stroke, or a degenerative disease whether nerve or muscle). But even if by chance we become aware of such aptitude, we seem unable to trust it and once again we succumb to our anxiety.

Since prehistoric times it has been the lot of humans to buffer their fear with rituals in which depictions of the world, both natural and spiritual, played a prominent role. Fertility goddesses and ovoid linga were carved from stone to assuage fears of impotence, bison were sketched on cavern walls to stave off the pangs festering in an empty stomach and coloured sand was vainly sifted into a careful geometry in the hope of providing an assuring counterweight to tip the delicate scales of mortality however slightly in our favour. From such acts, the theory goes, arose the twin penchants of art and religion.

Just as our fears have yet to be overcome, our conscious life seems predicated on the very angst from which we seek release. And with each new technological advance this angst seems to become more acute, thrusting its roots ever deeper. Over the past several thousand years we have accumulated massive libraries filled with books gathering dust, lying as mute witness to the continued failure of our attempt to provide any but the most provisional answer beyond the childish myths of our bedtime stories.

Nonetheless the daily struggle for survival remains and so we still, too often and far too readily, appeal to tradition or authority, turning to scripture, theory or the media seeking that ever-elusive answer. Well I am sorry to say that it does not appear that Geoffrey Shea’s art can provide any answers either. Instead, the authority of the word, even the comforting sovereignty of the image, is revealed to be what it is: the elegant cloak of our still timid unknowing. Shea’s art offers only beginnings, however tentative, however hesitant, creating them from whatever residua might linger from the endings that remain to us.

In any attempt to provide a summary of these images one is surprised by the inherently pessimistic vision which comprises the basic material of his video installations:

  • A woman suffering the terminal stages of cancer attempts to relate a poetic narrative in spite of the intermittent interference caused by a rotating radar antenna…
  • A spiral text, already fragmented, spins endlessly, frustrating any attempts to be read…
  • A young woman relates the tale of her infant whose comatose body she cradles each day in her arms…
  • A virtual typewriter the keys of which, when struck, emit random words or phrases…
  • The artist himself delivering a muted political speech to the strains of a canned laugh track…

A surprise all the more acute due to the lack of gloom descending, even throughout repeated viewings. For unsettling as such poignant images may be, Shea does not impose or catalogue the seemingly countless variations of melancholy and despair to which we are prone. What he does provide however is a sort of topography of courage, sketching the geography that stretches between optimism and resignation, hope and despair. This is a pathless land, or rather a thicket littered with the traces of others and crisscrossed with paths leading nowhere, yet which “continue infinitely in all directions, beyond the borders of the fragment you happen to be holding in your hands.”

Touching many of the grand themes of art—mortality, logos, grace, media, gender, politics—these pieces could so easily have been mere exercises of the most theoretical kind. Instead they are engaging on the most human level, for even without knowing the particulars there is no doubt that much in these pieces is authentic, lifted from Shea’s own private life or experiences others have personally recounted to him. Yet no matter how intimate or revealing they may be, still I am reminded of these lines by the 4th century Islamic mystic Niffari:

All you have shown is your veil
& all you have hidden is your veil
& all you have inscribed is your veil
& all you have effaced is your veil
& all you have covered is also your veil.

[translated by Pierre Joris]

Whatever knowledge we might have gained merely conceals a new beginning, the cycle repeating, much like the rotating of the spiral text contains both the promise and frustration of its own meaning. We may have deluded ourselves into believing that “understanding could substitute for being” but out of kindness, an innate curiosity or simply the fortuitous accidents which are inevitable in the creation of any work of art, Geoffrey Shea has been sensible enough to let the veils fall of their own accord.



Geoffrey Shea- Writing Machine

Geoffrey Shea - Speech

Video Interview