The word “suspended” often refers to time: a suspension from school or one of disbelief. Such suspension is momentary, anomalous, and suggests a return to a previous state after a brief period. Yet, the word can also refer to space, as in motes of dust suspended in a shaft of afternoon sunlight or particles suspended in liquid. The pandemic has felt like a suspension in both senses – a temporary, atypical time out of time and a floatation in a strange new reality, waiting for things to settle and make sense again.
Simultaneously, we have spent these months preoccupied with who and what matters: Black lives, essential workers, public health, democracy, our work and personal lives. Yet, matter is also material, and we have seen scrambles to acquire basic goods like toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and effective PPE, which – momentarily – accrued much greater value.
Berkeley Art Center, 1275 Walnut St.
Through Jan. 15, Wednesday-Sunday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.
In Suspended Matter, a group show curated by Patricia Cariño Valdez on display at the Berkeley Art Center through Jan. 15, four artists mine the multiplicity of meaning in the rich, layered notions of both suspension and matter.
Valdez curated this show as a love letter to her mother and designed it around the idea of art as means of coming together and healing. She envisions viewers – though perhaps still masked and distanced – circulating through the gallery like suspended particles, sharing in feelings of mourning but also possibility.
Though the works of the four artists – Julia Goodman, Jenifer K. Wofford, Laura Arminda Kingsley, and Asma Kazmi – differ greatly in form, they coalesce around themes of time and affect.
Julia Goodman: Tracing space and time with pulped paper and fabric
When you first approach the gallery, Julia Goodman’s stunning sculpture Certain is nothing now. (installed for the first time since 2009) hovers in the entry way, suspended from the ceiling. Its matter is composed of pulped junk mail, reformed into a series of nearly 50 irregular concentric rings hung in gradually ascending order and by diminishing size, so that the final ring is both the smallest and highest. The finished piece summons visions of a whirlpool or a tornado. Viewed from the front, the hollow core seems to pull you up into a celestial realm. Yet, this is a sculpture that must also be experienced in time since its shape transforms dramatically depending on where you stand. To take in its full presence requires not only walking around it but also lying on the floor to see it from below.
Two of Goodman’s more recent works hang on the wall nearby. Waning (August 19, 2007 – July 14, 2008) & Waxing (July 27, 2018 – May 10, 2019) is a diptych made from bedsheets and T-shirts that have been liquified into pulp and then pressed by hand against wooden carvings to dry. Goodman made Waning, which depicts phases of the moon from the 11-month period of Jewish mourning, just after her father’s passing in 2007. Waxing depicts the lunar phases while Goodman was pregnant with her son, born in 2019. The two pieces became a single piece, one made from dark fabrics, the other from warm shades of white. Although contemporary life is mostly structured by solar cycles (day in, day out, year after year) this piece recalibrates human experience – grief and joy – to lunar, ritual, embodied time.
To make Traces (Home), Goodman pressed pulped fabric against various surfaces in and around her house and garden during the pandemic, lifting and preserving their impressed patterns in abstract, irregular forms. Although tracing the space of her home while confined within those walls might read as a melancholy gesture, these pieces also indicate the way in which the tiny miracles of the mundane can emerge when one takes time to look at and touch the precious, unconsciously familiar details that are the very substance of home.
Jenifer K. Wofford: Imprisonment in orange and blue
Jenifer K. Wofford’s series of eight blue-and-orange-toned works on paper, Fire Season, also reflects on time and home during the pandemic but focuses on a particular day – Sept. 9, 2020, known colloquially as the “Orange Day,” when wildfire smoke colored Bay Area skies.
The images are hung along the corner of two walls, one painted blue, the other white and orange, to create large backdrops of contrasting color with multiple connotations. Wofford writes in her notes on the series, “Orange can be energizing and powerful, but is also full of uncontrollable danger, fire and fury. Blue can be calming and soothing, but is also full of bottomless sadness, grief and powerlessness.” The placement of the images along a corner references Richard McGuire’s 1989 graphic novel Here, in which eons of time are condensed into a corner of a room. The woman we see in various postures – staring out the window, lying prone on the floor, slouching in a chair – appears like a trapped animal unable to get comfortable. A window – sometimes blue, sometimes orange — appears in each drawing. In two images, we see no figure but only speech bubbles quoting the chorus from The Platters’ classic song, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes. This depiction of physical, emotional, and psychological entrapment – engendered by the threats of both the virus and the smoke from fires that are only the warning shots of climate change – feels all too familiar right now.
Although it shows how imprisonment can make the experience of time slow down, Wofford’s series also conveys a sense of time running out as our environment becomes a menace to our very survival.
Laura Arminda Kingsley: Adrift in deep time and deep space
Perhaps because humanity’s time left on Earth feels threatened, deep time suddenly becomes conceivable in a new way. It seems the Anthropocene, the human era, may be just a passing phase in the billions of years of Earth’s existence.
Where Goodman and Wofford’s works point toward the subjective time of lived human experience, Laura Arminda Kingsley’s video installations shift us toward deep time against which the duration of a human life barely registers. Set off from the rest of the exhibit by a partial wall, Murmurs of the Deep VIII carves out a space in which primordial life forms seem to ooze from the wall on which it is projected. Shapes that might be microorganisms billow forth and then float gently across the screen as if suspended in liquid. Yet, upon closer inspection, we can see human faces embedded into these organisms, as if human DNA had somehow been spliced with that of a protozoa. Referencing Yoruba and Taino sculpture, Ernst Haeckel’s studies of radiolarians, and fossilized traces of prehistoric life forms, Kingsley blurs the lines between human and non-human animal, inanimate matter and life. The scale here is undecidable; these “creatures” might be miniscule or massive. The soundtrack hints at wind and water, elements that emerged long before humans evolved and that will continue to exist long after our species has disappeared – or transformed into something as alien as the creatures that still lurk, unreachable, at the bottom of the oceans.
Kingsley’s other video loop, Murmurs of the Deep II, appears on a monitor across the room. The imagery is related to that of the first video but, in contrast to the slow emergence and circulation of beings in the projected video, the motion is faster and more directional. Rivulets of stars flow between human heads as if our species had somehow been absorbed into the cosmos. Whereas the first video connotes the deepest ocean, this one suggests the farthest reaches of space.
Asma Kazmi: The true apprehension of everyday objects
Asma Kazmi’s series of photographs and drawings return us to the time and scale of human experience. The images seem at first glance to be a critique of our obsession with objects across history. Yet, upon closer inspection, the problem revealed is not the obsession or the objects themselves but, rather, our misguided treatment of them – acquiring them, consuming them, being consumed by them.
In each of Kazmi’s photographs, which are part of the series After Jahangir (2021), we see a man or woman holding up an object in their hand, a colorful painted frame placed behind and around the object to emphasize its presence and importance. Jahangir, a Mughal emperor in the 16th century who was a great connoisseur of plants, animals, minerals, and fashioned items, was often painted holding up an object and examining it, contemplating it. Whereas we live in a culture of fast food and fashion in which we eat as quickly as we can and wear a set of clothes only once before discarding it, Jahangir appears to be pausing to truly apprehend the object. That he painted himself looking closely at a thing expresses not pride in his possession of it but, rather, in its existence. Suspending both utility and familiarity, he appears to appreciate the very being of the object. Kazmi describes his gesture as “an embodied enchantment with the material world.” In Kazmi’s photographs, the items being held up are simple things – a package of teabags, a slice of watermelon. The images demonstrate that, through a simple pause to look, the true beauty of any material object can emerge.
This is likewise true of the drawings, also part of After Jahangir, that appear 2-by-2 in X-shaped wooden frames standing on the gallery floor, which look capable of holding an open book. Indeed, Kazmi refers to these frames as rehal, Islamic book-holders. Here, we find detailed drawings of things that we normally only glance at – a traffic cone, a matching orange-and-white construction barricade, an old computer mouse, an electric kettle – surrounded by gold leaf frames. By asking us to attend to these functional but inelegant objects, Kazmi gives us the opportunity to give them their due as aesthetic traces of everyday human life in the early 21st century. Thus, Kazmi’s series is also about time, meaningful time, time that imbues meaning.
Stepping out of time and into the moment
Time, of course, is not singular; different rhythms and tempos, accelerating and decelerating, altering their beat, are constantly moving around and through us. By choice or force, we are continuously shifting our rhythms, jumping in and out of streams of time flowing at different speeds.
In his beautiful book about the sabbath, Abraham Joshua Heschel argues that meaningfulness exists not in any thing or place but, rather, only in time. He writes, “We must not forget that it is not a thing that lends significance to a moment; it is the moment that lends significance to things.”
For Heschel, the notion of sabbath is not simply about rest from labor; it is a stepping out of the time of daily existence into a different temporality in which all things may become resonant. Visiting a gallery is, like a sabbath, a moment in which the time of daily life is suspended so that other possible temporalities can materialize, usually in contemplation of an object. In such moments of deep attention, the clock time that determines so much of our behavior falls away, revealed as but a powerful illusion.
Suspended Matter reminds us that, while many material forces that shape our fleeting lives are beyond our control and nothing is certain, we nevertheless have the power to choose how we inhabit each moment.
Jaimie Baron is a phenomenologist who writes about art, media, culture, and the human condition. She is currently a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley.