Jim Ovelmen: Western Skies
PØST, Los Angeles
By LYLE ZIMSKIND, DEC. 2014
The world comes to an end four times (at least) in the 27-minute span of Jim Ovelmen’s absorbing mixed-media animated video Western Skies. On December 12 and 13 the PØST art space in downtown Los Angeles hosted three large-screen 3-D viewings of the work, with Ovelmen providing live solo electric guitar accompaniment. Evolving out of a much shorter piece developed for projection onto building facades in Japan and L.A. a few years ago, the longer version of Western Skies was introduced this fall at Taipei’s Fringe Festival and underwent further revisions before receiving its fully realized premiere at PØST.
Western Skies is divided into four discrete sections, each offering a vision of planetary destruction and its aftermath. The first part, “Cretaceous,” depicts the inception and natural extinction of dinosaur life on earth in the wake of an asteroid collision. “Tel-Ex” then presents a much darker vision of the planet’s collapse in the wake of institutional and military-industrial devastation. In “Metastasis” our world is overcome by pollutant toxins. Lastly, in “Silver Spoon Regret,” we are targeted by medieval torture devices attacking us from outer space.
Part tongue in cheek “pulp fiction,” part apocalyptic cautionary tale, Western Skies evokes the popular science fiction fantasy iconography of interplanetary attacks and galactic battlegrounds even as it conveys a sober prognosis that our home in the universe is likely facing its doom. Each successive act of destruction and planetary breakdown depicted in the video seems to rebuke our obliviousness to the fate of the earth. If there’s an activist impulse in CalArts grad Ovelmen’s work here, it’s an implicit challenge for us to rediscover a course that might let us abandon the death drive we’ve embarked on.
Still, the absence of ordinary human figures suggests that we may not really be entirely in control of what’s going on. As we watch the video, each of us is relegated to the position of a hapless observer of our species’ annihilative influence. Harmful as we are, we still barely understand what we’re doing. By the time we’re finished, though, the only traces of us left are the banal, quotidian items (such as remote control devices and condoms) that we leave behind.
Adopting a kind of “kitchen sink” approach to animation, Ovelmen uses a diverse range of old- and new-school techniques -- from the vintage stop-motion procedures pioneered by Lotte Reininger in the 1920s to contemporary digital graphics -- in creating the images that he layers over one another like a transparency. Some of the objects we see are computer-generated; others are just plastic space ship model sets or two-dimensional dinosaur forms made out of uncooked rice. If the video were a rock album, Ovelmen muses, it would be like having every style of the music from every decade thrown together into a single work.
Ovelmen’s prog rock guitar licks at PØST complemented the Moog synthesizer and acoustic piano music soundtrack of in the actual video production, aural components that add a mock-solemn depth to Western Skies’ prematurely nostalgic elegy for a world that’s not yet lost, but whose prospective end is projected onto the screen as the stuff of poetic daydreams. WM
Lyle Zimskind writes about arts and culture for Los Angeles magazine and LAist.com and has contributed to the LA Review of Books, New York Newsday and KCET Artbound. He is also a former Managing Editor of the Czech Republic edition of Esquire magazine.