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MIAMI — In 2014, Nancy Shute at NPR wrote in regard to a Northwestern University study, “The brain edits memories relentlessly, updating the past with new information … to make them more relevant and useful now — even if they’re not a true representation of the past.” The faulty nature of memory renders a red couch blue, the end of a relationship far rougher or sweeter than its reality, a left turn a right turn — it’s a constant, callous editor. When recollecting childhood, memory glows with a funny haze, shaping our history until it takes on a storyline. In artist and composer Alexis Gideon’s The Comet and the Glacier, on view at Locust Projects, he synesthetically examines the nebulous line between memory and truth, taking the rest of us with him, too.
Gideon transforms Locust Projects into a two-part narrative: his nostalgic dream-state and a setting he calls “The Comet and the Glacier.” The latter, which Gideon conceived of over the past year and a half, and wrote in collaboration with his friend and partner Jacob Rubin, tells the tale of a fictional book entitled The Almanac (even though almanacs are factual), written by the equally fictional Swiss Fredrick Otto Bühler. The book has just been discovered by Bühler’s kin. Alexis, named for the artist, is watching the news about The Almanac‘s discovery on television and, in seeing its imagery, remembers — or feels he remembers — the book’s content from his childhood. Confused, he recalls reading and imagining them at bedtime. But if The Almanac was not made public until now, as the news states, how could that be? Alexis sets out to write and illustrate — or rewrite and re-illustrate — one chapter from The Almanac without reading it first, attempting to resolve whether he’s simply experiencing déjà vu.
The immersive environment Gideon’s created at Locust — aglow and dark purple, like the womb of a planet — finds its center with a straw hut and a mud hut; the hearth and the home are, so often, spaces of warmth and storytelling. Three other rooms function as a museum displaying artifacts from the maybe-real histories described in The Almanac, Bühler’s makeshift office, and Alexis’s childhood bedroom, where his bed sits beneath a window that is also a screen. Each room features a four-channel video screening a section of “The Comet and the Glacier,” a film in which Gideon juxtaposes Alexis’s version of the story — where the inhabitants of the comet watch the glacier approach them and meet their demise — with Bühler’s, where the people of the glacier gather around to watch the comet.
The film is a combination of stop-motion Claymation, Super 8 footage, and HD video (the ocean makes a frequent appearance), and was brought to life at the show’s opening November 19. Gideon, in a temporary appearance, sang along with his clay figures — they tell the story in rap, song, and incantations — and became an animated storyteller of the whole tale. Like The NeverEnding Story, we toggle between the folklore and the real, watching Alexis, sitting in his New York bedroom, pore over illustrations that come to life in an apocalyptic parable. (Gideon will continue to perform on different dates throughout Miami Art Week, listed below.) In both Alexis’s and Bühler’s version of the stories, the characters meet their end (both prefaced with a rain of blood), their bones discovered later by archaeologists. The Comet Fire Lake forms where the glacier meets the comet, bringing a fever to anyone who dare touches it; the comet itself becomes a glacier, its surroundings an icy lake that’ll induce a cold.
These clay inhabitants of the glacier and comet are housed in vitrines in the “museum room,” where panels describe them as real artifacts attributed to Bühler, who used them to make photographic plates for his illustrated Almanac. It’s fitting that this is the space at which we enter the exhibition, stumbling into a world of fiction as fact, before the rest of the space unfolds in a dreamscape.
The Comet and the Glacier can be overwhelming. There’s a multitude of mediums to parse through, and the story itself becomes complex. But so, too, is the coexistence of truth and fantasy in our own Earth-bound lives. “It gets difficult to decipher, as any history is made up of fiction and fact,” he explained at a Q&A. “Our own histories are personal mythologies and all our memories are faulty.”
The most fictitious parts of the tale are almost completely rapped. “Hip-hop looms large in my childhood,” Giden said, who grew up in New York City. “It’s often compared to poetry, but to me it’s more similar to prose. Poetry is about distilling an idea into as few words as possible; hip-hop is often about as many words as possible. It’s a great narrative vehicle.”
His performance ended, unpredictably, with a cover of Tom Waits’s “Innocent When You Dream.” The lyrics are telling: “It’s memories that I’m stealing / But you’re innocent when you dream.” From our narrator’s childhood “bedroom” to the clay art and meditative shots of the sea, nostalgia might be the show’s most prominent theme. Waits sang “Innocent When You Dream” at the 13th Annual Bridge School Benefit in Mountain View, California, in 1999. Before he launched into song, sad and somber, he said in his gravelly way, “This is a song my dad taught me when I was a kid. That’s a lie. This is a song I learned from kids in the alley behind the theater. That’s a lie, too … They’re all lies. The whole song’s a lie. No it’s not.”
Alexis Gideon’s The Comet and the Glacier continues at Locust Projects through January 21, 2017. Live performances will take place November 28–December 4. Please visit the gallery’s website for further information.