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Lexicon for Tracy Abbott Szatan: a Sontagian Review

Anahoros. 2019. Tracy Abbott Szatan’s video and glass installation that I shall describe and use as a lens (preemptive pun intended) through which to view the compass of Szatan’s greater artistic practice.

Available Light. 1983. Lucinda Child’s fifty-five minute dance production that Susan Sontag reviewed by way of thirty-eight titled and alphabetized paragraphs in, “A Lexicon for Available Light.” In the paragraph aptly labeled “Titles,” Sontag classifies Child’s title, Available Light, as a “stylish appreciation of the possible.”1

Available light. In its un-stylized, un-italicizied, un-capitalized, and pre-objectified form, available light is the light that is available. Available light determines that which is visible and subsequently that which is possible. For humans, the adage, “Seeing is believing,” is evolutionarily true. The parts of the brain that process sight in humans (and all primates) are dramatically larger and more intricate than in any other mammals.2 Consequently, available light fosters our trust in seeing by literally illuminating that which we can observe. We use our observations to infer what is true and what is possible. Available light enables invention. Mammoth industries like filmmaking, cosmetics, smartphones, and fashion have woven themselves into the fabric of daily life and human history by innovating upon and thus perpetuating our visual culture. Put simply, every little thing about the world we live in owes its existence to available light. But when I say available light, I’m not talking about the light shed by the fluorescent bulbs in your office or the candlelight that allowed Sir Isaac Newton to pen Opticks centuries after the advent of fire. I am not even talking about the advent of fire. I am talking about the most naturally occurring form of light available. The sun. Now ask yourself this: if you were the only living thing on planet earth—if there were no trees, no plants, no animals, no other people, no buildings, nothing—what would be the first thing you saw? The answer is simple and it hides in plain sight. It didn’t occur to me until Tracy Szatan pointed her lens at it in Anahoros. The first thing made visible—made possible—by the available light of the sun is, of course, the horizon.

Disruption. The 15-minute video opens with a black screen. A thin blue horizontal line begins to cut across the dark, flat space, bisecting the abyss into two segments. Gradually, this straight blue horizontal line begins to wobble and undulate, eventually bending into an erratic squiggle that looks like the aerial view of some winding river. Then, as if we are overlooking this river from a glass elevator that has rapidly ascended high into the air, the meandering river below appears to shrink, its curves shrinking with it, until the squiggly blue line has seamlessly recovered its initial appearance as a perfectly straight bisection of the abyss. The blue line expands upward and downward, filling the screen with its content: video footage of an actual horizon—where blue sky and blue water meet. The waves gently roll toward the screen’s bottom, crashing on a shore just out of frame where we may as well be standing with our feet in the sand. An opaque black circle fades into view, hovering smack dab in the middle of the screen, over the horizon line. Two more identical circles fade into view, flanking the center one. Then, two more circles, equal in distance from the last two appear, cut off, however, by the outer edges of the widescreen video’s natural bounding box. The consistency in size, distance, opacity, and rhythm of appearance suggest continuation off-screen. An endless procession of equidistant circles fading into view rhythmically over an ever-expanding horizon. As soon as the infinite pattern has suggested itself, it is disrupted. All but two circles disappear, one left and one right. Their solid fills dissolve. Only their circular outlines remain. Duplicate rings appear slightly offset. There are technically four interlocking circles now but my bi-nocular vision is motivated to keep the four circles classified within a two-part system (left of center, and right of center). As I think this, the video footage flooding the background fades to black except for in the areas confined by the circles. If before my view of the horizon was disrupted by solid black circles, now my view of the horizon feels mediated by some sort of narrow, seeing apparatus. If before it felt like I was looking out at the horizon from a sandy shore, now it feels like I am looking through two portholes from the dark hull of a ship in the middle of the ocean. Vertigo. Claustrophobia. Darkness begins to eclipse my small round views of the horizon. The eclipse passes. Vision restored. The sky turns black and it feels like dusk on some planet where the ocean self-illuminates at night. Horizon-filled circles appear. Above, below, right, left. It’s like a black and blue kaleidoscope or polkadot textile. The sky turns to water. A black line separates the water above from the water below. The image rotates 90 degrees and now the black horizon line is more of a verizon line (if you catch my drift). Separating left water from right water. Waves travel uncannily up-screen. Repetition. Repetition. New shades of blue. Fewer shades of blue. The water exhibits seemingly impossible behaviors. Currents divide and multiply, overlap and crosshatch. Clones of one single wave seem to span the whole ocean. Waves ripple with impossibly perfect symmetry. Small splashes travel impossibly large distances. The entrance of a duck reveals a formerly invisible plane. This is Szatan’s modus operandi: disruption. By disrupting our limited view of the image to reveal that which was formerly invisible, Szatan disrupts our limited understanding of possibility and demonstrates the so-called impossible.

Horizon. We cannot experience the true horizon—the boundary between sky and earth which surrounds the observer in a theoretical circle. What we can experience is the visible horizon. If a sailboat were moving away from us, the visible horizon is the distance at which that sailboat would disappear from view (due to the curvature of the earth). Because the earth is not perfectly spherical, and because our eyes deceive us, our experience of the visible horizon is not always indicative of reality. We tend to experience the visible horizon as being further away than it actually is and, when the air temperature at the surface of the earth is hotter than the air above it, we will see objects in the distance that aren’t actually there, a.k.a. a mirage (the refraction of an object that is below the visible horizon). By presenting us with visuals that engender a sense of inaccuracy, Szatan’s disrupted horizons gently ask us to reconsider our accepted visions of reality, which are—factually speaking—inaccurate.

Glass. Listening to Szatan speak about what initially attracted her to the idea of handcrafting her own glass lenses is a spiritual experience by proxy, sort of like listening to your stoic older brother’s voice shake as he reads his wedding vows aloud. What attracted her to glass? Tracy paints me a picture: “When you fire clay in a kiln, its molecular structure is permanently altered.” Ceramics can never be turned back into clay. “But glass,” she says with reverent enthusiasm, “is molecularly irregular, like water. So in a sense, glass can live many, many lives.” And since glass can live multiple lives, Szatan’s glass lenses may as well be literal reincarnations of the glass prisms that Sir Isaac Newton held up to the sun 300 years ago. If Newton’s glass prisms showed us that white light can be dispersed into the colors of the rainbow, Szatan’s glass lenses show us that light can be collected and dispersed in countless other ways. Like Newton looking upon his rainbow or that fallen apple beneath the tree, Szatan looks upon her materials with an affinity for nature’s invisible secrets.

Poetry. It is poetry that comes to my mind when spending time with Szatan’s work. But why poetry? To answer that question, I turn to Sir Philip Sidney’s long and dense 16th century treatise, The Defense of Poesy, in which he proclaims that poets are the people best endowed to elevate the human mind (or “purify the wit,” as he says) and “draw us to as high a perfection as our degenerate souls, made worse by their clay lodgings, can be capable of.” Throughout the manifesto, Sidney repeatedly emphasizes this idea that humans are “made worse by their clay lodgings,” or in other words, are limited by their physical anatomy, such as our eyes. Sidney defines poetry as “an art of imitation, a mimesis…a representing, [a] counterfeiting,” and “a feigned example,” of life. He says that “a feigned example has as much force to teach as a true example,” for in its ability to move us, “the feigned may be tuned to the highest key of passion.” I think of Szatan’s feigned horizons, which offer more for our consideration in 15 minutes than the true horizon and the visible horizon are likely to offer many of us throughout our whole lives. Sir Philip Sidney goes on to explain that unlike the historian who is limited to facts, and unlike the astronomer who is limited to observation, and unlike the philosopher who is limited to abstractions, and unlike the painter who is limited to aesthetics, and unlike the mathematician who is limited to proofs, and unlike the musician who is limited to sound, the poet is not limited and thus most capable of “purifying the wit” and lifting “up the mind from the dungeon of the body to the enjoying of his own divine essence.” It is no wonder why then Szatan’s artwork evokes poetry. In her practice, Szatan wields all the powers of a historian, an astronomer, a physicist, a musician, a philosopher, a painter, a sculptor, a glassblower, and a documentarian, without any of their respective limitations. Though virtually wordless, Szatan’s work is poetic, and by elevating us closer to knowledge in accordance with Sidney’s treatise, Szatan is, too, a poet.3

Sound. The 15-minute soundtrack to Anahoros is an ebb and flow of earthly sounds. Nature’s chorus: Whales moan, gulls caw, crickets chirp, birds bob, wings flap, winds howl, tides rolls, waves crash. The constant, the arrhythmic, the subsonic. Daylight’s roaring cacophony. Twilight’s quiet creaks and sighs.

Time. Spending time with Anahoros is to spend time with time, itself, in every sense. The rows of circles that appear in the video suggestive of infinity remind me that when I look at the horizon line, I am just getting a glimpse at a small section of the true horizon, which surrounds me. A circle is made up of infinite lines and in its endlessness, a circle represents a cycle. Nothing and therefore everything is as cyclic as time. What we experience as the sun rising and setting in a linear fashion each day is, of course, just our limited view of the sun, as the earth rotates and revolves. When Anahoros was installed at Plaxall Gallery in Long Island City in 2019, the 15-minute multi-channel video was synchronized to loop precisely on the quarter of the hour, making the video mimetic of the horizon not just visually but functionally—enabling the viewer to approximate time in the way one does by looking at the sun’s distance from the horizon. To look at the horizon is not only to look at the time, but to look at evidence of time itself. Regardless of the lens through which we look, our looking is evidence of the ability to see. Seeing is evidence of available light. Light is evidence of time and time, light. Thus, to be looking at anything is to be evidence of time. To look at the horizon is to be evidence of time looking at evidence of time. Light ties time together. Light is what makes time possible and what connects us to the past. The sun that rose outside my window this morning is the same sun and that rose thousands of years ago, when Ancient Egyptians and Babylonians were using shadows to keep track of the day. The setting sun is to time as a steady drip of water is to impermanence. An inescapable force revealed by nature. Such observations are revealed by Szatan.

Titles.  Szatan’s practice is not entirely wordless. Her eye for the inherent poetry of science appears not only in her subjects of inquiry but in the titles she gives them. To be seduced by the molecular structure of glass for its ability to live multiple lives is to acknowledge that science is poetic. There is no science without awe. To study “the system of knowledge concerned with the physical world,”4 is to first accept that a world worth studying is literally wonderful. The natural world cannot be fully appreciated, let alone understood, if the miraculous beauty of scientific phenomena is denied. The title of one of Szatan’s earlier works, Allotropes, takes its name from the real, scientific term used to describe the capacity for the same chemical element to exist in different forms. The word itself is efficient, conveying its meaning in its etymology (allo- meaning ‘other’ + tropos meaning ‘manner’). Charcoal, diamond and graphite are allotropes of carbon. Equally true, however, is that this fact is sublime. That some microscopic, atomic choreography is responsible for our observable experience of the environment is nothing short of poetic. The meaning of the word “allotrope” is equal parts scientific and romantic. That romance and science are inextricably linked is the noble truth that Szatan’s works bring to light. In coining the word “Anahoros,” Szatan taps into the efficiency of Latin-based scientific naming systems as well as the art of creation—the poetic practice of assembling words. The roots, ana- and -horos, together translate to mean against boundary.” As one, anahoros carries within it the essence of both Szatan’s most recent project as well as her general mode of inquiry. Its etymology denotes the disruption of a boundary. This boundary could be that which separates sky and earth, or that which separates art and science.

Vision. What you see is not what you get; What you see is what you expect. Anahoros corrects our vision by disrupting our expectations in order to illuminate new features of what has always been in front of us. Thanks to the digital era, which has made images more readily accessible and easily consumable than ever before, we have become passive viewers who sit around waiting for someone to show us something new. Szatan opens our eyes and says look! There is something new in front of you! All around you? Look at how you look and how you have yet to look. Isn’t that miraculous? To explore and express science through art, and art through science. Anahoros is not just a stylish appreciation of the possible, but a panoramic view of it.

Tracy Abbott Szatan, Anahoros (2019), multichannel video, audio, kiln-formed and flame-worked glass lenses.

About the artist: Tracy Abbott Szatan is an artist and writer based in Brooklyn. She is a 2020 studio resident at Trestle Art Space, an organization with which she just happens to share initials. Her work can be found at www.tracyabbottszatan.com and on instagram @tszatan.

About the writer: Alley Horn is an artist and writer from New York. She is not yet the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship but is manifesting her destiny one bio at a time. Follow her on Instagram @alley.horn or visit her website at www.alleyhorn.com.

Works Cited

  1. Sontag, Susan. “A Lexicon for Available Light.” In Where the Stress Falls, 161–77. New York: Picador, 2002.
  2. Balaram, P., & Kaas, J. (2014). Current research on the organization and function of the visual system in primates. Eye and Brain,1. doi:10.2147/eb.s64016
  3. Sidney, Philip, 1554-1586. An Apology for Poetry, or, The Defence of Poesy. London :T. Nelson, 1965.
  4. Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, s.v. “science,” accessed September 2, 2020, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/science.