On Dervish

By Kimberli Meyer

A pioneer of computer-generated immersive installation, Los Angeles-based artist Jennifer Steinkamp uses the projected image to raise questions about perception, politics, and existence. The power of her artwork lies in the skillful use of contemporary life’s visual vocabulary—the digitally produced image—to reflect upon our time. Steinkamp’s work defies clear-cut classification, crossing many cultural spheres. Key influences include experimental animation, avant-garde and structuralist film, pop art, feminism, minimalism, and the California movement of light and space.1

Rooted in the investigation of time and space and responding to the architectural environments that surround her work, Steinkamp’s installations transform the viewer’s physical experience of space and sense of reality. Cosmic explosions, undulating abstractions, pitching waves, moving vortexes, fabrics spilling like rivers of mercury, shimmering flowers, and trees swaying to impossible winds populate the walls of her installations. Each of her animated images is created from scratch, using digital technologies without a source. Her “artificial natures,” as she refers to them, perform a wry, sophisticated synthesis of science, art, and popular culture.2

In Dervish (2004–2006), digitally drawn trees swing and sway to unheard rhythms and unseen forces toward unknown promise. Strange and graceful, they twist both slowly and rapidly, reach in all directions, stretch and yet stay locked in a robotic rotation of variable tempo. Invisible root systems keep them grounded while their trunks, branches, and leaves play eloquent parts in an orchestrated dance. The trees are truly animated: a virtuoso combination of drawing and movement renders them as figures upon which our fantasies and/or fears may be projected. Engaging and mysterious, they exude a ghostly quality, haunting us with the sense that there is more—or perhaps less—than meets the eye.

In Dervish Cairo (2008), debuting at the Eleventh International Cairo Biennale, a suite of three prints is installed in tandem with a three-channel video installation of Dervish. The prints propose a simulation of dervish trees, as if projected along Cairo’s urban landscape. Using photography and digital drawing, the imaginary trees are visualized on the street walls of Cairo. The flat, artificial quality of the drawing contrasts with the urban architecture of the city, highlighting the passage of time by envisioning the interaction of the ancient and the contemporary. Through the exhibition of both prints and video installation, the viewer is able to see Steinkamp’s trees move through three kinds of spaces. First and fundamentally, the trees exist in virtual space as digital drawings, artificial flora in the no-man’s space of digital code. Second, when transferred into the video installation, they occupy a three-dimensional temporal space. Physical space gives the trees their uncanny life—their opportunity to be full-scale and familiar while simultaneously automated and eerie. Third, when the drawings are superimposed onto a photograph of real space, they exist in the visualized space of the digital photomontage. This space is dependent on imagined conditions, unrestricted by real constraints and purporting to alter actual space. In Steinkamp’s installation for the Cairo Biennale, it is clear that her digital forms shift with ease across the first and second dimensions of line and surface, the third dimension of space, and the fourth dimension of time.

Dervish possesses several characteristics typical of Steinkamp’s work. First, the title points the viewer to cultural references present in the work. Second, the artwork promotes the ideal of peace. Third, the combination of real space and animated imagery creates a disorienting yet enchanting physical experience.  For example, Jimmy Carter (2002) was titled in honor of the former United States president to specifically evoke his legacy of inclusive values. Steinkamp used the image of a flower—often employed as a symbol of peace—in a shimmering projection that seems to dematerialize the walls. Another example is Einstein’s Dilemma (2003), which poses ethical questions about scientific practices. The work refers to the fact that the role of military power was of great concern to Einstein, who urgently warned the world about the potential dangers of applied science. The installed animation produces ominous, unexpected explosions triggered unwittingly by passers-by, and serves as a call for personal and professional accountability. Dervish was created after Steinkamp visited and exhibited in Istanbul, Turkey where she was exposed to the history, music, and dance of the whirling dervishes. Named after members of a Sufi sect of Islam, the work aims to evoke respect and admiration for the Middle East and its cultural and spiritual practices.3

The context for Dervish and Dervish Cairo is the American interest in Sufism, which, along with a general interest in non-Christian religions and mysticisms, swelled in the 1960s on the California coast and spread to the rest of the country in the ensuing decades.4 The popularization in the 1980s of world dance and music introduced American audiences to Sufi music through artists like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Abida Parveen. The effect of this international infusion into American culture has been significant: artistically it expanded the creative landscape by introducing new sources of appreciation and influence; politically it has connected foreign cultures through art, and in doing so, encouraged open-minded respect for the unfamiliar.

Both Dervish and Dervish Cairo pay homage to the dervish spinning ritual as an inspirational, mindful, and peaceful practice. Both imply that alternatives to Western perception and hegemony are necessary and desirable. Dervish Cairo presents itself as a simulated gift to the public space of the city. It is a lyrical proposition that offers a bouquet of digital trees to the streets of Cairo. The video installation Dervish, with all its beauty and mystery, also contains a paradox: a tree’s fundamental nature prevents it from turning even one full circle, let alone in repetition. Locked into a motion of back and forth instead of around and around, the dervish trees aspire toward the impossible with improbable grace. Ultimately that grace carries the moment, and the viewer may conclude that harmony is achievable through a rich variety of methods, positions, and systems of belief.

1) For a thorough account of Steinkamp’s development and influences see JoAnne Northrup, “Juniper,” in Jennifer Steinkamp (San Jose: San Jose Museum of Art; Munich: Prestel Verlag: 2006), 18–95. For more information on her works, see her artist Web site at http://jsteinkamp.com

2) This paragraph is comprised of excerpts and ideas from the essay “Simulated Realities: The Art of Jennifer Steinkamp” by Kimberli Meyer and Nizan Shaked, published in the catalogue Jennifer Steinkamp for the United States Presentation at the Eleventh International Cairo Biennale (Los Angeles: MAK Center for Art and Architecture, 2008). For a more in-depth interpretation of her work, see this essay.

3) This paragraph draws from ideas “Simulated Realities: The Art of Jennifer Steinkamp” by Kimberli Meyer and Nizan Shaked.

4) The writings of Sufi poet Rumi have become best sellers and have garnered public acclamation by pop figures like Madonna.

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