2003 – Everything is Going to be Alright

Maider Fortuné at the Ryerson Gallery     September-October 2003

You enter the gallery through double French doors, angled off an irregular corridor on the third floor of a converted industrial building. Inside are two long walls, one immediately on the left and the other opposite the entrance. Offset to the right is a smaller, bay-like extension of the gallery area, with a lower partition wall defining the back of the exhibition space. Three large wooden trusses support the ceiling beams, punctuating the sight lines of an otherwise open floor.

Some illumination spills in from the corridor behind the entrance, some from over the partition wall at the back right, but most of the gallery is quite dark. A carpenter’s light with a single bare bulb hangs on the left wall, its cord snaking along the floor to the nearest outlet. Written in pencil on this wall, in a loose script accented by light from the bulb, is the installation’s title: “Everything Is Going To Be Alright.”

On the far wall, there is a projected video loop of a figure, jumping. A percussive sound is heard each time the figure hits the bottom of the video frame and the next jump begins. On the back partition wall, four large-scale photographs show the same figure, its movement arrested in midair. Seen with peripheral vision, these prints appear as a frieze, the figure in curiously flattened relief. In the dim, almost penumbral viewing environment, the first impression is one of calm.

The jumping figure is a male who is wearing dark shorts, nothing else. He is videotaped in an anonymous and emotionally neutral way, his body active but his face hard to discern. The space in which he jumps appears white, featureless, evenly lit, cubic in form and enclosed on all sides. In the four minutes, 57 seconds of each video cycle, the figure jumps two hundred and thirty-three times. He hits the ceiling seventeen times, and makes thirty-seven 180 degree turns in midair, turning upside down in each. Eleven times, he hits the back wall. At the conclusion of the cycle he is caught in mid-leap, as motionless as in the photographs. There is a brief moment of no movement and no sound, and then the cycle begins again. The camera never changes position, and the space in which the figure jumps remains a constant.

As the gaze shifts from one wall to another, a tension is experienced. The fixity of the photographs starts to reinforce the claustrophobic space of the video projection, and the ceaseless jumping in the video (which forms its only subject) gradually suggests some unseen, unstated meaning. Despite all the bodily movement, the figure never actually goes anywhere in this blank, static space, and it is impossible to construct any linear narrative from the quick, repeated jumps and the self-renewing video loop.

Details of the work accentuate this tension. During each cycle the speed of movement slows imperceptibly, and eventually the figure seems lighter, almost weightless: the body twists and rolls more easily, and the cubic space itself appears less confining. But this impression is immediately canceled as the cycle restarts. And as each cycle progresses, it becomes more apparent that the video frames of actual contact and rebound are missing from the projected loop. Similarly, the percussive sound that punctuates each leap is clearly derived from, but not actually descriptive of, the act of rebounding: the audio signal has been reprocessed in some way. The figure’s identity is not revealed, nor is the location of the white space.

These tensions lead to scrutiny, and in turn to questions about form. Even with the most concentrated viewing, it is hard to attain certainty about the work’s temporal structure, the figure’s ending position, and whether there is simply repetition from cycle to cycle or some inner variation. Eventually, three larger questions dominate the viewer’s involvement with this installation: Why does the figure jump? What is the artist trying to say? And how should the work be viewed?

Only the last of these questions is readily answered. If you observe people in the gallery space, they move from the work’s title to the video projection and then over to the photographs, eventually coming back to the projection. They either leave the gallery after a brief look or stay to examine the work closely, often for extended periods. Some converse, some move about, but most will spontaneously become still, or sit on the gallery floor, and watch the video cycle several times, occasionally shifting their gaze to look back at the photographs. Those who do this can become entirely absorbed in the experience, and they get up to leave quietly, obviously preoccupied with what they have seen. From this one can infer that the installation, for those who are actively curious, points to issues that need to be considered quietly, inwardly, and over some period of time.

Fortuné’s writings about her work are very helpful here. Her artist statement explicitly describes the space of the video, and the condition it represents:

The white cube is a space of suffocation, repelling the human body…just as it retains it. The endlessly repetitive bouncing (with its accompanying sound) … renders the promise of escape definitively obsolete….

She goes on to contrast this with the imagery in the four photographs:

…revealed in the photographs is the diametrical opposite…. The photographs present a body in ecstasy…exulting in its ardor…a body of grace, elated by its extraordinary liberty of movement….

As her text proceeds, another meaning is suggested, related to the viewer’s perception:

The gaze, as it is progressively hypnotized, witnesses the drawing of a point…. It is the point of the crossing of trajectories, the point of flight, of mobile immobility. The movement thus marries two antagonistic necessities: oppression and liberty.[1]

She elaborates further in other comments, from later correspondence:

I was first aware of the constraint the character experiences, but then (with the slow motion mostly) I also discovered the freedom the body is experiencing…. Even if I am tied up from head to toe, I can still move the little finger of my hand, so I experience an entire freedom, and a full possession of my body….

Having established this context, she continues with references to the work’s title:

“Everything is going to be alright” is for me the first sentence mothers say to their babies in order to calm their cries, like a promise for the future, a promise one confronts every time something is not alright. [Eventually] I realized that this was not just an unkept promise but also an ambiguous one, half kept, half unkept.

Finally, she writes to clarify two other aspects of the work, the lack of a visible surface from which the figure launches each jump, and the symbolism of the featureless white space in which the video takes place. She elaborates:

There is a rebound without a ground… Imagine this [situation of] ground/no ground… [imagine it especially] for all the bodies throwing themselves from the twin towers… [can there be] a place to rebound without the impact of the ground…? [As for the white cube], Kafka is saying that all his writing emerges from a white cell…three walls and the fourth one is opened on the void, the precipice…the fourth wall in the video is the eye of the visitor. [2]

So the work represents a conundrum, in which freedom and ecstasy co-exist with immobility and oppression, promises made can only be partly kept, and the tensions of the human condition are related not just to hypothetical issues, but actual events—a representation of which we see playing out in a space which is both real (the gallery) and psychological (the fourth wall, through which the visitor gazes).

The parameters and variables of this installation derive not just from what can be seen or heard in the actual installation, but from undercurrents that move through the visible, aural and temporal forms of Fortuné’s work. These lead from the confining space in which the figure jumps, to the gallery itself as another confining space; this space becomes a theatre, in which the figure is a protagonist. But of what sort? From where? And if the work implies freedom, why does the figure endlessly jump but never get to any destination or achieve any goal? (And why is the motif so prosaic? Why does the figure not soar, like the divers in Riefenstahl’s Olympia? After all, they equally fail to escape the bounds of time and place.)

A clue appears in an unexpected source. In Act I of Waiting for Godot, Estragon’s final question to Vladimir – “Well? Shall we go?” – is followed by Vladimir’s affirmative reply: “Yes, let’s go.” The next line, Beckett’s most famous stage direction, states simply: They do not move. In Act II, it is Vladimir who asks and Estragon who answers, and again the response is “Yes, let’s go.” The stage direction, utterly explicit, falls like a hammer this time: They do not move. One line further down, indented to the right, is a final word: Curtain. The play itself seems to deal with nothing but the problem of freedom and immobility. The question must be raised, but the answer hovers out of reach, just as Lucky cannot conclude his only monologue, which starts with heroic intention but ends in uncertainty:

in the plains in the mountains by the seas by the rivers running water running fire the air is the same and then the earth namely the air and then the earth in the great cold the great dark…I resume for reasons unknown in spite of the tennis the facts are there but time will tell I resume alas alas on on in short in fine on abode of stones who can doubt it I resume but not so fast I resume the skull fading fading fading…in spite of the tennis the labors abandoned left unfinished graver still abode of stones in a word I resume alas alas abandoned unfinished the skull…the stones…unfinished….[3]

The rhythm of Beckett’s language reflects with uncanny precision the rhythm of Fortuné’s filmed jumps, just as Lucky’s vacillation mirrors the audience’s increasing wonderment. We find the coordinates of Fortuné’s protagonist–his movements, his dilemma, his condition–in the outlines of Beckett’s characters: Vladimir and Estragon, who aspire but cannot act; Lucky, who thinks but cannot articulate; or even Pozzo, who commands but cannot dominate.

From other sources in Beckett, we recognize related traits: Molloy’s circular logic (“Simple supposition, committing me to nothing”) [4] is as reflexive as the figure’s jumps; Malone’s passivity (“…to tell the truth he was in no hurry to leave, but nevertheless was leaving, he knew it”) [5] shows the weight of defeated ambition and enclosed space; the impatience voiced in The Unnamable (“…when you have nothing left to say you talk of time, seconds of time, there are some people who add them together to make a life, I can’t….”) [6] echoes the figure’s restlessness at the start of each cycle. Most telling is the thudding finality of the recorded Voice in Rockaby, in a refrain that is repeated seven times, each with slight variation: 

                        going to and fro

                        till in the end

                        close of a long day

                        to herself

                        whom else

                        time she stopped

                        going to and fro

                        time she stopped

                        time she stopped [7]

With these recognitions, the meaning of this work becomes transparent and clear: the figure jumps because life is defined by action or inaction, possibility or impossibility, and by time and motion; but the figure cannot escape because there is no escape. Life is a set of circumstances in an endless arena; one action follows another. Beginning and conclusion are far less interesting than the procession of events in this moment, which ultimately is all there is. Beckett somehow knew this; so does Maider Fortuné.

On any given visit to the gallery, the same figure executes the same movements, on the same walls, in the same order. Each leap and rebound is separate. All of them together form the substance and duration of the work. There is nothing more and nothing less than the sequence, the projection, the soundtrack and the photographs. After many questions, there is only one definite answer: in the vast terrain of all possibilities, a lone figure continues to jump.

Don Snyder

March 2004               

[1] Quoted from Artist Statement, Everything Is Going To Be Alright, September 2003

[2] Quoted from correspondence, 18 February 2004

[3] Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot, New York (Grove Press) 1982, p. 29

[4] Samuel Beckett, Molloy, from The Beckett Trilogy, London (Picador/Pan Books) 1979, p. 76

[5] Samuel Beckett, Malone, op. cit., p. 226

[6] Samuel Beckett, The Unnamable, op. cit., p. 364

[7] Samuel Beckett, Rockaby and Other Short Pieces, New York (Grove Press) 1981, p. 11