By Zoe Koke
In 2018, artist Mat O’Hara modified an adjoined section of his MFA grad studio into an ad-hoc project space called PS311. The space opened with Untitled (eyelids), a video installation by Jordan Loeppky-Kolesnik. eyelids was created in the throes of Jordan’s final MFA year, and it bears the marks of this experience—its talk of poison, its intense introspective focus, its peculiar saturninity illustrated by a bubbling cauldron of slime. If you theorize something like MFA aesthetics, I’m sure it would include a healthy dose of suffering. But eyelids doesn’t stop at suffering; it moves through its own breed of catharsis, and from that surfaces the potential for something else. It plays with internal anguish, following a wave until the feeling changes. This is why I’m drawn to it, why I wanted to write this. Jordan and I—long-term friends and new collaborators—share a desire to make something heartfelt. We often ask ourselves why this seems so inane in the current art climate. Or just in our culture, where oversharing or letting your guard down isn’t palatable, it’s to be avoided, ironically mainly in the realm of making. The awkward uncoolness of intuition and sincerity (and a privileging of distancing tactics) is enforced by context cues, groupthink, but never explicitly, for that would be too insensitive.
The intensity and focus of eyelids happens through a one-on-one encounter: artist to viewer, video shot in first-person perspective—direct immersion. It’s a strategy I’ve seen repeatedly in Jordan’s work. Here we are in a room together. There’s the implication of me as the viewer: am I a voyeur to a private moment? Am I the one grafting plants together with my hands in the rain? Is that serpent sliding all over my body? It isn’t a passive relationship; if you have an aversion to snakes, this work is not for you. (Luckily I grew up with a boa constrictor, so I let it seep in).
The title of the exhibition is borrowed from the reptilian eyelid, the second pearly underlayer that allows reptiles to see but remain protected. We hear this described by the narrator as the screen shows a relentless series of clips of a human and a snake interacting. We see neither of their faces, rather, the sole focus is on this tactile mode of cross-species communication. It’s enough to send an ophidiophobe running to the other room, but I find myself drawn in, thinking about this transfer of knowledge that happens through the skin. Instead of the familiarity of human contact, it’s like contact with an alien. The snake offers something unknown, and I suddenly understand and absorb the myth of the snake and the Garden of Eden—there is a strange kind of unknowable intelligence to these creatures. The ambivalent intimacy between human and snake offered up here is something to ponder. Through some online research I learn that scientists have no idea how pet snakes feel about their owners; they are unable to observe any particular fondness or dislike.
Watching this encounter gives me an undeniable body-high, like ASMR on speed. When I ask Jordan about it, we begin to talk about affect, that amorphous and endless field of philosophy and critical theory. It’s the focus and vehicle for Jordan’s work: using space to create something visceral in the viewer, to communicate through the body and all its senses. Or maybe not just with the senses, but also with a kind of presence or telepathy. Is the voice I hear over headphones in my head, or am I entering the mind of the narrator? Without seeing their face, our identities overlap.
I think of this kind of communication through direct experience as part of Jordan’s queerness, though here it’s not glitter butt-plug queer art, but some other kind of queer art. My affective encounter with eyelids continues when I move towards a sculpture included in the space. It is a metal tank with a heating element, steam rising from the water and a thin film developing on the surface. I learn from the materials list that this film is made of pectin, from fruits. Here it’s dissolved. It’s a hot cauldron spontaneously gaining a skin—another skin-on-skin encounter. The subtle transactions that occur in Jordan’s work point to our precarious but meaningful relationships with nature, and the intimacy that we forge with ourselves as our senses become awakened. Bringing us to a realm where we are the most receptive and embodied is what I feel underlines Jordan’s art practice, yet it is in tracing our distance from nature that also makes this work melancholic. I consider Untitled (eyelids) as a walk through my body and its fluidity and the invitation for a necessary moment to question my relationship with the natural world. Jordan’s work believes in the power of nature, omnipresent cues and othered knowledge in our world to help us locate ourselves. It is in leaving Jordan’s work, in a state of afterglow, where I understand both connection and separation, the layers of hopefulness and grief that this work encompasses.
Untitled (eyelids) ran from November 6 – December 15, 2018 at PS311 in Ottawa, ON.
Feature Image: Video still from Untitled (eyelids), 2018 by Jordan Loeppky-Kolesnik. Photo courtesy of the artist.