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SAN FRANCISCO — To be bound, inextricably, to another person throughout time. Such is the stuff of literature, myth, and even endurance performance — Romeo and Juliet, Orpheus and Eurydice, Marina and Ulay. None of these stories has a happy ending but I cannot help but think of these when I see the work of Ingrid Rojas Contreras and Jeremiah Barber, a young couple who has lived and worked out of San Francisco since Barber was an MFA student at Stanford. She is a writer, venturing into making “narrative collages” for the first time; he is a performance artist whose documentation and outtakes are themselves transformed into works of art. Their two-person show at the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts, curated by fellow Stanford alum Sanaz Mazinani, combines both of these tendencies, and features newly commissioned solo work by both artists alongside documentation of Barber’s early solo performances and of the pair’s collaborative performance projects. If this sounds like too much, it’s because it probably is. What ties these disparate pieces together is the artists’ relationship to each other; the dynamics of their creative and personal partnership, even more than the themes of individual pieces, truly manifest the mystery and beauty of Lo Real Maravilloso / The Marvelous Real.
Initially approached by the Mission Cultural Center to do a reading and exhibition of her forthcoming novel, Rojas Contreras instead created new narrative collages, utilizing fragments of three interwoven yet discrete stories set in her family’s Colombian hometown, Ocaña. The first tells of her grandfather, a healer whose gifts defied reason, science, and logic. A second story tells of Rojas Contreras’s mother, who has the ability to be in two separate places at once. The third recounts a vision shared by Rojas Contreras’s mother and sisters, calling them to disinter their long-deceased father’s remains, and the mystical appearances around the scattering of his ashes in the river. Visually mapped with photographs and told in a charming voice complete with parenthetical asides and footnotes, the narrative collages suggest alternative modes of (re)telling family histories, stories which can never be fully encapsulated in the written form but which nonetheless need to be told.
These works are an earnest first attempt by Rojas Contreras, whose skill at immersing us into fantastic worlds is quite obvious here. As a viewer, I would have liked to have seen Rojas Contreras’s pieces more spatially separated from Barber’s solo work. Barber’s conceptually challenging and visually arresting style, and the sheer number of his works filling the gallery compared to hers, inadvertently steals the show from Rojas Contreras’s seemingly more simplistic (but actually quite informationally dense) collages.
This impossibility of fully attaining mastery or complete knowledge of history or the body is a theme explored throughout Barber’s performance pieces, drawings, and sculptures, which were smartly selected for presentation by curator Mazinani. Of these works, most compelling are his three new sculptures titled “Speculative Machine,” “Speculation Sequence,” and “Bring To Mind” that give physical form to sketches of unrealized performance pieces. The sculptures are made from found objects and twine, wood, and metal to tantalizingly hint at what a live body could do if only one could push it just a little further. “Bring to Mind” appears to defy logic through a clever application of tension: are we witnessing an unraveling of twine by a chair, or are we seeing the twine holding up the chair, keeping it from falling down? I believe that this indeterminacy — or our inability to know whether the relationship between materials is actually generative or destructive — characterizes most of Barber’s solo work. It certainly applies to his performances featuring Rojas Contreras, works that challenge the viewer to consider how far one can push another against a threshold without breaking.
Even as Barber and Rojas Contreras have inspired each other for years, it was not until 2014 that they first truly collaborated, resulting in the live performance “Other Half Orbit.” In the excerpted video documentation, projected in a back room in the Mission Cultural Center, Barber and Rojas Contreras lie facing each other, halfway submerged in a black pool of water, with overhead lights reflecting their ghostly shadows on the wall behind the pool. The two are engaged in a loosely scripted conversation around mortality, love, and memory, focusing on the aftermath of an accident that temporarily left Rojas Contreras without short-term memory just before the pair’s wedding date. Audience members are forced to ask themselves where one body ends and another begins, as Barber and Rojas Contreras struggle to speak to one another for almost an hour, their bodies shivering and mouths filling with water; we see their physical discomfort and the emotional strain of recalling difficult memories (or the lack thereof).
Whereas Barber’s solo performances are about pushing his own limits of endurance, sometimes to frightening excess, “Other Half Orbit” does not feel as masochistic an exercise. Rather, the pain we see in “Other Half Orbit” is of a shared difficulty that results in a mutual release, a simultaneous becoming. Like the photograph of the young couple nude and standing atop of one another in a forest, which opens the exhibit, “Other Half Orbit” gives us a glimpse at the deep connection between the two — a relationship that withstands extreme landscapes and situations. In an exhibit focused on giving form to intangibilities and impossibilities, it is this element of intense intimacy in the bound-together work and life of Ingrid Rojas Contreras and Jeremiah Barber that is the most mysterious, and the most marvelous, to bear witness to.
The Marvelous Real / Lo Real Maravilloso continues at the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts (2868 Mission Street, San Francisco) through February 28.