Claremont Graduate University Student Feature: Kristen Brownell
Biomythography: Everything We Are, and Everything We Aren’t by Kristen Brownell
Before I took refuge from a few sprinkles of rain and wandered into the CGU art building, I’d never heard the term “biomythography.” What does that even mean? I asked myself as I strolled down the wrong hallway and was steered back toward the correct exhibit by a helpful artist, his shirt splattered with the map of a future project.
“Can I ask you something?” The artist stopped and looked at me as if he already knew the question. “What’s biomythography?”
He smiled and nodded toward a pair of headphones sitting on a bench. “They’ll tell you.” Then he was gone.
I sat down and put on the headphones. When they started to speak, the answer began to unfold.
Crystal Z. Campbell
Witness, (05:07 minutes), 2010-2011 16mm Film transferred to Digital Video, Appropriated Stereo Sound
* * *
“I’ve got thirteen shots in this gun,” a man said through the headset.
“If we release these dogs, they’re going to bite you,” the officers replied. “And we have guns, too.”
“I don’t give a fuck—I’m ready to die.”
Then thirteen shots popped in my ear, and I knew the man was dead. What I didn’t know was who caused it: his gun or the police’s. The television screen in front of me provided no answers—it was just a contrast of black and white. But through the abstraction, the man’s lifeless form started to emerge. Toward the end of the recording, I heard children laughing and playing as the officers chatted casually about the dead body on the street. Just another day in the neighborhood.
I’m Pretty, 2013 Black Cocktail Dress; Hair Straighter, Face Foundation, Blush, Eyebrow-Definer, Lipstick, Eyelash-Curler; and a Variety of Desserts. Video Performance
The next installation was a video of a woman repeating the same sentence: “I’m pretty.” As she said it over and over, hands came at her from both sides and started smearing cake on her face. “I’m pretty,” she kept saying. “I’m pretty.” Her voice became slower and slower until eventually, it sounded like a walkman with low batteries. By the end of the clip, her face was covered with a frosting and angel food mask. “I’m pretty,” she choked one last time, unrecognizable.
Next, a recreation of a little girl’s bedroom. It was a 1980s time warp, and I felt instantly akin to the “Star Wars” pillows and “Battleship” box on the TV stand. The bedroom was separated from the other installations by a beaded curtain, and I stood outside of it for a moment, uncertain about walking in. There was no one in there, but I still felt like an intruder. This isn’t really someone’s bedroom, I reminded myself.
Video still from "KOKO's Love: Episode 1" 2014 Single-channel video 11:14
After looking over my shoulder to make sure no one was coming, I bypassed the beads and sat on the pink bedspread. There was a video playing on the old-school tube television, and another on the iPad sitting on the desk, and another on the mini-tablet on the bookshelf, and still another on the flat screen television on the wall, its sleek frame replacing what would’ve been a bedroom window. The four videos told the story of a Japanese daughter who, according to her father, should’ve been a son, because there’s no way in hell he could leave the family business to a girl. The chimera of that would-be son—the Greek god of gendered inheritance—permeated the bedroom.
It wasn’t really someone’s bedroom, and yet it still was. It’s a landscape and a memory that transcends time and space.
I sat on the bed for a while. There was a mirror on the desk, and I caught a glimpse of myself in it.
There’re lots of things my parents wish I would’ve been.
* * *
These installations are just a sampling of what I saw. From film to photography to sound recordings to paper and plaster, the collection of artwork in “Biomythography: Secret Poetry and Hidden Angers” explores the intersection of personal narrative, cultural history, and folklore. It probes the idea of how the past, both real and imagined, shapes and informs the way we interpret the present and our place in it. Some of the installations are bildungsroman in nature, while others are a more direct reflection of the contemporary atmosphere with regard to ethnicity, gender, and societal norms. Though different in tone, style, and temporality, each installation shares one thing: the ability to affect through both emotion and medium.
The use of media to bridge the gap between past and present, both in relation to personal narrative and it relation to advances in technology, is particularly intriguing with regard to biomythography. In spite of the progress we’ve made in methods of communication, our growth remains stunted in certain ways. The iPad in the little girl’s 1980s bedroom is a symbol of progress, and yet she still can’t reach her father. The invention of audio recording enables us to connect through radio and telephone and music—it allows us to become a united entity—and yet the conflict between authority and marginalized communities is still a very real concern.
So what is biomythography, then? It’s poetry. It’s art. It’s history. It’s culture. It’s truth. It’s fiction. It’s correspondence. It’s reconciliation. It’s reconstruction. It’s pain. It’s hope. It’s everything we aren’t, but mostly, it’s everything we are.
Hats off to the artists who created this exhibit.