Cameron Gainer: N.I.L.

Review by Gretchen Gasterland-Gustafsson

Weinstein Gallery
June 2–July 23, 2016

Each of the five pieces in Cameron Gainer’s recent Weinstein exhibition is titled N.I.L. Without the punctuation it would literally mean “nothing.” Gainer has presented its meaning as “Natural Illuminated Landscape” in talks, but any intended significance is omitted from gallery text and thus it could also mean “Nuclear Induced Lightning,” a flashing phenomenon accompanying a thermonuclear explosion. Given the works’ focus on fireflies, colloquially called “lightning bugs,” this alternate title adds an ominously poetic layer of meaning to the work that speaks to the potential of the Anthropocene to destroy the world on which we mutually depend.

The first photograph addresses the body of the viewer like a window out onto a forest landscape, shot in the waning light of the evening, with a single flare of yellow light just below center of the image. This point in context reads like the charge from which the other lights explode in the remaining photographs in multisized profusion extending into the deep space of a black background. N.I.L. 2 in particular shows an ascending diagonal line of six bright spots characteristic of the intermittent flashing pattern of Photinus-carolinus in the luminous flight that serves the species’ survival. Synchronous Fireflies in flight attract others on the ground by timing their simultaneous flashes in four to eight beats, at a rate of two beats per second, followed by a brief period of darkness that can last up to 10 seconds. This period of in-flight darkness allows the grounded fireflies to rhythmically flash their replies. This pattern is more clearly seen in the video, but the photographs provide visual evidence for the synchronous flashing answered by the grounded response. These flashes make an overall scattered pattern of light points across the ground of the prints.

These prints are visually dazzling—like nature’s reply to Jackson “I am Nature” Pollock—but the surface glare reflected my presence, out of place in these visions of a world that thrives best without human interference. The N.I.L. series contrasts Gainer’s darkly evocative Luna del Mar in that the marine dinoflagellates of the latter light up as a defense in response to the movements of the eponymous synchronized swimmer. Her body forms a dark silhouette, a black hole surrounded by their soft blue light. Unlike Pollock, Gainer uses the sophisticated tools of science and observation to re-contextualize nature as culture, to capture its visual poetry, in a gallery space designed for cultural reflection.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the video collaboration with composer and cellist Alex Waterman. I am drawn into the projection room by Waterman’s score, a haunting riff on the natural sounds of frogs, birds, and insects. Waterman has layered his croaking, chirping, buzzing, and ringing instrumentation— including a staccato percussive woodblock, a low bowed bass, a soaring piccolo—in rhythmic intervals that echo the visual flashing patterns of the fireflies. Instruments enter, joined by others, each forming its own terse, repetitive tonal and rhythmic leitmotif. These leitmotifs layer, and successively disappear in moments of silence, only to return at a later interval. This pattern of sound and silence reiterates the synchronous rhythmic patterns of light and intermittent darkness with which the fireflies call to one another. The score provides auditory cues inviting me to look for corresponding visual patterns. The video moves me from twilight in an identifiable wooded setting, through the dissipation of daylight and into a darkness punctuated only by the fireflies’ own bodily luminescence. The fireflies’ points of luminescence do not reveal the surroundings. We orient ourselves with vision, and thus our need for ambient light competes with their need to communicate. Firefly light does not aid our orientation, but is vital to their species’ survival.

Gainer studied with filmmaker Stan Brakhage, known for his 1963 film Mothlight. Brakhage incorporated dead moths’ wings, expired because of their irresistible attraction to light, along with other bits of translucent and opaque flora physically wedged between clear strips of 16 mm film. This carnage and detritus sandwich was then print transferred to create a film without the aid of a camera or lens. In later pieces, such as Stellar (1993), Brakhage experimented with painting directly on film stock with aniline dyes. 

Stellar combines points of light with painted fields of color to resemble an idea of the cosmos. However, while Brakhage is concerned with the manipulable materiality of film, Gainer is concerned with the light captured from naturally luminous phenomena in an otherwise still landscape. Instead of the artist illuminating his subject, the subject itself is the source of light—the only source of light after nightfall in his chosen landscapes—and Gainer is receiving and recording rather than casting light. Considered alongside Brakhage’s methods in the pieces mentioned above, Gainer’s position in N. I. L. is comparatively passive, his camera a still observer, ceding all activity to the fireflies’ illumination as the ambient light fades.

Both the visual and auditory pacing of the video offer a meditative mood that invites contemplation of the comparatively luxurious life-span we human observers are allowed to enjoy in the face of the fireflies’ frenzied flight of desire. While the insects’ behavior is scientifically coded as evidence of intra-species competition to ensure the “survival of the fittest,” Gainer’s camera records cooperative behavior in the choreography and composition of their flashing display. Gainer’s work displaces the artist as a source of activity, and serves as a reminder that we humans cannot make the sole claim to possessing culture. This relatively passive, displaced position features the efforts of a very small and short-lived creature’s light display and is an act of concession by an artist who otherwise occupies a thoroughly hegemonic position in the world. I find this move post-humanistically hopeful. That said, this patient, receptive passivity on the part of the artist requires a more active viewer who is willing to invest in the work with more than a passing glance. Gainer’s work requires time and effort, and in this way the artist’s seemingly passive stance issues its own demands.

Art can make us slow down, and this is what the video accomplishes while the photographs do not, immediately. The photographs are initially too easily and quickly passed by, requiring the video work for context. The photographs retrospectively contextualize what we see in the video when we return to them for a second viewing. Gainer’s work requires both the photo and video components, but the projection stands as the far more engaging aspect of the exhibition. While not every viewer will answer Gainer’s call or agree that the work repays their attention, the space it creates for contemplation of one’s own place in relation to the illuminated landscape is invaluable. In the face of constant demands that divide our attention into temporal snippets, the chance to sit down and observe changing light conditions from twilight to firefly punctuated darkness offers space to focus on something other than the self and its needs.