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New York Artist Christopher Willauer's PDX Debut

Ellena Basada

On a Saturday in the middle of January, I was among the first people to arrive at Third Room, an open gallery space painted white with multiple projection screens cycling through the videos of rising artist Christopher Willauer’s installation "Keeping Time with the Tide." With no immediate beginning or end, this installation invited the audience to browse through its content and interact at their own pace. The still energy was betrayed by the multi-screen movement and rushing ambient sounds, making it initially overwhelming to find a place to begin.

On the screen closest to the entrance, a video entitled “Swelling Sails” documents the artist standing in a grassy, frigid-looking plane overlooking a body of water. He is flying a white kite made of thin plastic sheeting, which fluxes with the wind that sounds loudly throughout the gallery. The chaos that registers aurally and visually contrasts the stillness of the sublime landscape that Willauer places himself in. The recorded videos are punctuated by the words, “My longings have been tethered and my sails broken but yet the wind blows. To where must I go for my desires to find a home.” These words contextualize the tension between movement and stillness in the video and the exhibition at large.

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In another video, “Within My Spirit I Hold Oceans of Love for You,” the trope of stasis and movement is further distilled. Showing a pair of hands holding a ball of ice that melts over time, such themes become symbols for metamorphosis and change. This specific video calls to the fragments that hang on the other wall. One of them reads, “When you build a home, no weight is added to the earth;” another, “Floods are a displacement of water, not an excess that was created.” Meant to be torn down by audience members, these fragments that each sit alone on a single white page allow space to meditate on the mutability of matter and the cohesion that lies below the surface of chaos.

This project was created during the time that Willauer spent at the Heima Artist Residency in Seyðisfjörður, Iceland and homesickness is the core tone. The sentimentality of these pieces is transmuted in looping videos that show the artist alone in sublime natural setting, performing tedious and futile tasks, such as climbing a standing ladder set up against nothing, or forcing a bare circle into the grass through repetitive marching. As a queer artist, the theme of longing for home permeates deeper than that felt spatially. Growing up in religious household in Iowa, Willauer had always felt like a stranger in the place he was meant to call “home.” As means for survivance, Willauer sought and has been seeking a poetics of acceptance, wherein he practices taking up systems and adapting to them although they are not structured to accommodate queer life.

After spending time in the space, the installation’s cohesive element becomes known. In the titular piece, "Keeping Time with the Tide," Two analog clocks that sit on opposite facing walls initially blend into the quotidian and are not registered as part of Willauer’s piece. Despite this, at a closer glance, each clock is filled with melting water and thick drops seep out of the bottom of each. These clocks were first filled with water and frozen; remaining operational, the hands of the clock struggle against the ice, attempting to keep the time. As the ice melts, the environment changes although remains resistant to the clocks’ original function. The time that was once read the same on the clocks eventually grows farther and farther apart.

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Willauer’s first Portland installation was distinctive to other small gallery exhibitions seen throughout the city. The artist’s ability to evoke deep emotion through the strange and oftentimes absurd tasks he undertakes in video speaks to his control over abstraction, which is a heavily desirable artistic skill. Moreover, Willauer’s muted queer aesthetic is refreshing, offering a unique route to contemplate queer life and time. Third Room’s efforts to bring artists such as Willauer to Portland continues to be successful in creating a meticulous, meditative space to contemplate being that diverges from the standard white, masculine.