Suzanne Bocanegra's I Write the Songs is extremely elaborate, highly varied and conceptually demanding—and that's just what you get from looking at it. One of two simultaneous exhibitions at SITE Santa Fe, Bocanegra's multimedia installation pieces combine painting, assemblage, music, math, performance art and art history, among other elements.
In "Little Dot," Bocanegra constructs a stage on which poles—tabulated to represent the number of pointillist dots of color in Georges Seurat's "Young Woman Powdering Herself"—pike up assorted colors of ballet shoes. Two ballerinas from Aspen Santa Fe Ballet tap out a piece garnered from the same numerations.
"Color Chart" incorporates a compartmentalized cabinet with numbers corresponding to the yarn colors it holds. From this, Vassar math professor John McCleary vocalizes a song, beamed from two nearby speakers.
Across the room, another sound/art installation, "After Rerememberer (All the Threads)," combines a lithe, blue and white textile hanging from the ceiling next to more speakers, which emanate the sound of the weaver weaving as well as the music of 50 first-time violinists playing a piece based on that weave (the piece also involves a sound processor, conductor, and light and sound designers).
These equations require a lot of patience or a little good faith. Excuse the eye-roll-inducing elaborateness and what you're left with is simple artistic process. I generally prefer to know the media an artist used or the theme that unites his or her work. Bocanegra's process is just infinitely more insane than most.
Bocanegra's work focuses on translations—from one art form to another in a series of behind-the-scenes linguistic conversions. I'm not fluent in the language, but I like its sound.
Take, for another example, "After I Write the Songs." A recorded performance features the Flux Quartet playing "notes" that viewers, most recently on the Plaza, drew onto already-printed music scores. (These new scores include such helpful notes as a drawing of a princess and the words "let violinists have a 10 minute break.") From the performance, video was made, audio recorded, and the new and improved scores bound into books or strung from laundry lines across the room.
The piece raises important questions about whether process affects the quality of the product or such dizzying pretense is just affectation. The answer lies in whether you privilege the ride or the destination.
Sure, one could admire the work simply on face value—altered music sheets sway gracefully across the room to a perplexing backdrop of sound and light—but the background makes it more interesting.
Bocanegra's most accessible works (and I mean this only relatively) are two translations of paintings by 16th century Flemish painter Jan Brueghel the Elder. She abstracts the floral elements from Brueghel's pieces—subtracting the people and landscape from "Sense of Smell" and the glass vase from "Flowers in a Glass Vase"—to create large-scale works both called "All the Petals" (respectively 154 by 230 inches and 125 by 77 inches).
Instead of in oil, Bocanegra casts the flowers from fabric, pins, watercolor, gouache, paper and beeswax. Individually painted petals hang in clusters in the same placement as the originals (Bocanegra's own kind of pointillism). They shimmer like multicolored stars against SITE's smart background of black-painted walls. With closer inspection, delights abound: The black fabric supporting the petals in her version of "Sense of Smell" gives the impression of upside-down shadows, for example.
After some investigation, I established a trusting relationship with Bocanegra's translating abilities. (Take my word that the assemblages are true approximations of the originals, just way cooler.)
Fortunately, for those of us with less patience (or who don't get paid to do this), the show is enjoyable at first sight. It takes time to learn to love it.