Publication Type:Journal Article
Source:Afterimage, Visual Studies Workshop, Volume 13, Issue 1 and 2, Rochester, NY (1985)
There are certain artists for whom the process of making art appears to be an infinitely personal one, a release, a surge of emotion, a powerful need to express themselves. Their emotional and spiritual growth is often remarkably visible in the fabric of their work-almost painfully transparent. It is in this category of artists that I would place Dan Reeves, a video artist whose work explores contemporary issues such as socially-condoned violence and the human potential for destruction, as well as spiritual issues of human existence and divine nature. Throughout all of Reeves's videotapes there is a pervasive feeling of the artist's presence, psyche, and spirit, of the artist using the medium as a means of understanding himself.
Reeves's tapes are also a primary example of work that transcends and calls into question standard categories of documentary, narrative, and personal expression. While he has dealt with "documentary" issues--violence, war, nuclear arms--Reeves has done so with a mixture of styles combining narrative, found footage, image manipulation, text, and personal experiences. He describes his early interest in "the personal narrative, the narrative that escapes being told in our culture," and "in the potential of sculpting and changing material--collage, metamorphosis, transformation, synthesis."' When discussing his work and his concepts of art, Reeves invariably returns to "truly distilled and thoughtful poetry," as his most important inspiration. Fittingly, the evolution of his work demonstrates a development from a somewhat self-conscious and revelatory use of language to a refined and spare understanding of the relationship of poetry and image.
Reeves began making film and videotapes in 1979; he previously worked with sculpture and photography, and continues to do so. His work can be seen in two groupings--the first deals with political and social issues, and the second explores spiritual and philosophical issues. Two tapes have eclipsed their predecessors: Smothering Dreams, a tape that Reeves made in 1982 about his experience of combat in Vietnam, and the more recent Sabda (1984), a visual essay about human existence composed with imagery from India and structured on ancient Indian poetry. While diametrically opposed in both approach and content, both tapes force us to confront certain issues as they confront us also with their maker-his questions, struggles, desire for understanding, and beliefs. The progression from the aggressive and stylized Smothering Dreams to the meditative contemplation of Sabda reveals in many ways the maturing of an artist-the realization of a style.
Reeves's development into an artist was unusual. Leaving high school at age 16, he enlisted in the Marines at age 17 in 1965. He characterizes himself at this time as sensitive, politically naive, and philosophically curious-reading Sartre and war novels at the same time and writing poetry in boot camp. In 1968, he was in a platoon that was almost obliterated in an ambush during the Vietnam War; he returned to the United States wounded and extremely bitter about the war. During the next 12 years, he worked in the anti-war movement, did subsistence farming in Maine, went to Ithaca College in upstate New York where he studied film and photography, and worked in assemblage sculpture, painting, and photography. He also spent a lot of time at the National Film Archives in Washington, D.C., compiling a collection of found footage. In May 1978, Reeves went to India for four months to travel and study meditation, which he calls "a watershed experience .... I was approaching 30 and it really changed my whole outlook about myself and even more importantly about my ability to do my work without anxiety about what would result."
Upon his return, Reeves got a job at the Educational Television Center of Cornell University and discovered video. Collaborating on both image and sound with audio artist Jon L. Hilton, he produced his first tape, Thousands Watch, a short, image-processed work that deals with the issue of nuclear suicide. The tape's central metaphor is derived from a 1936 Universal newsreel of a crowd looking on while a young man stands on the ledge of a tall building threatening to, and eventually succeeding in, committing suicide. It begins with an image of time-lapse colorized clouds racing across the sky at a frenzied pace while a low siren wail emerges on the soundtrack. This sound forms a pulsing heartbeat and builds into a tense crescendo as the tape progresses. Intercut with it are excerpts of familiar historical voices--Truman announcing the dropping of the bomb and Kennedy stating at the U.N. that "we all share this small planet." Images from the newsreel-- the lurid headline of "Thousands Watch!", the crowds gathering and watching in fascination, the huddled figure on the building's ledge-are juxtaposed with images of war, nuclear explosions, the hands of a corpse being ritualistically folded again and again, as well as footage from the 1958 Brussels World Fair of circuses, amusement parks, automated milk machines, and postwar prosperity and glee. Dense and tightly woven, the tape seems to accelerate stylistically and verge toward self-destruction.
I knew that I wanted to make a very simple statement about nuclear weapons as a form of mass suicide. That ability to make things smaller and smaller, to repeat things, to build perhaps a more meaningful and powerful total image in a short amount of time, and in video appealed to me. The hands being folded on the body again and again indicate a stretching to an infinity of death. When I think of nuclear war, I think of this unimaginable multitude of deaths. In the newsreel, people stand in the street watching somebody who is obviously thinking seriously of taking his life. It immediately occurred to me how similar was our own situation. At that time in 1979, right before Three Mile Island, not many people were thinking about nuclear war in any serious way. It made me think about how vacant our consciousness was, and how we are just going on with life as usual in the workaday world while the nuclear arsenals continue to build.
Throughout this period, the focus of Reeves's interest was not only the political issues of nuclear war, but the more intrinsic question of what motivates human beings to pick up arms and do harm to one another. At the root of this questioning was, of course, his own experience in Vietnam, and he decided to find a means of dealing with that memory and to confront the experience of combat on videotape. He was also motivated to express himself because of the kind of material that was being generated commercially about the war: "Seeing what was being done, that's what really pushed me to make Smothering Dreams. When I saw The Deer Hunter I walked out. I was so disgusted at the presentation of the North Vietnamese as a subhuman species." In collaboration with Hilton, he first produced Body Count (1980), a tape that acts as a kind of preliminary sketch, and then finished Smothering Dreams in 1981.
Smothering Dreams is a work replete with catharsis and personal anguish. Reeves describes it as the result of "12 1/2 years of living with a memory that just would not leave me alone." The exorcism of that memory, the desire to understand why it happened and what led him to that situation, are the primary currents underlying the work. It is especially compelling in the way it translates pain and emotion to the screen. Reeves describes the incident that was the impetus for the tape:
[My platoon] was positioned in the demilitarized zone (DMZ) and we began to search and destroy villages. They had started some sort of pacification program, so we would get up early and be loaded into helicopters and armored personnel carriers and would surround a village before the light would break. Intelligence officers with translators would set up these large PA systems and tell everybody to get out of bed, and we would then move into the village and begin to interrogate people. Men without ID cards were tied up and taken back to the perimeter of the compound for interrogation. We would take sniper fire and a lot of artillery fire from across the DMZ. As each week and month went by, it began to be more and more like war, but it also quickly become apparent to the people that I was hanging out with--who were listening to Bob Dylan, Frank Zappa, Jimi Hendrix, and the Grateful Dead with incredible four-track stereo machines plugged into generators in the middle of the jungle--that we were expendable. We would be asked to take a certain area and hold it for a day or two with a calculated loss of life, that was written into the project if you will-they knew they might have 15-20% casualties.
I began to question the morality of it, and the efficiency of it-how much of a waste it all was, fighting to liberate a people who were in the process of liberating themselves. I began to have a healthy respect for the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese Army as citizens of the country, who were so committed to liberating that country that they would do anything .... But I had to be knocked off my horse completely. Even in spite of seeing all that death and destruction, it had to be brought home, served up in total living color. l had to be scared out of my wits to have it reach the center of my being.
When the ambush took place, I had been in Vietnam about 9 or 10 months. That day, 1 remember feeling a heightened sense of "something is going to happen to me . . . ." There were 33 people in this platoon. We were given a radio message to set up what was called a blocking force, which is a glorified name for just sitting and waiting for troops to be pushed towards you by other troops. They gave us the wrong information and we rolled into a graveyard with 33 of us sitting on top of this vehicle. Vietnamese graveyards are composed of mounds of dirt, and in these mounds of dirt were several companies of North Vietnamese troops with heavy machine guns, rocket launchers, mortars, and very well-timed and aimed artillery. We rolled in there and got slaughtered.
I remember hearing someone say, "There they are." The lieutenant and I were sitting in the front of the vehicle and we both jumped off at the same time, but between the time that we jumped off and hit the ground, he was totally riveted with machine-gun fire, and he was right next to me. Just as I hit the ground, a rocket went off behind me and blew my clothing off. I didn't know it at the time but it cracked one of my eardrums and blew the other one out, so I wasn't hearing all that well. We all got in behind this vehicle, and the people who weren't dead or dying were fighting back, so later there were a lot of medals given out. We were pinned down there for four or five hours; eventually I was med-evaced out by helicopter. The helicopter went out and came back in, and as it came back in it was laced with machine-gun fire. I became terrified. We finally got out of there and got to the hospital-this was the beginning of the Tet Offensive, January 20, 1968to a place called Dong Ha, but as soon as we got out of the helicopter, the North Vietnamese began to shell the place. We were lying on tables having our wounds inspected and we had to run outside and get in sandbagged bunkers. Then every hospital I went to got shelled, so although my wounds were fairly serious, for a while it looked like they might keep me in the country. Just thinking about it makes me shake.
Terror, guilt at having survived, anger, and bitterness at the waste of life are the emotions Reeves wove into the fabric of Smothering Dreams. While it is a deeply personal work, events and realities are collaged in it so that they take on a universal quality rather than simply telling one person's story. Says Reeves, "I didn't want to make any sort of dignified, coherent statement, because I don't think that there is one about Vietnam or war or combat. The tape comes from a visceral, intuitive, gut-level approach." That approach combines reenacted scenes of the ambush and of Reeve's childhood with found footage, audio excerpts of speeches, personal narration, poetry, and contemporary music.
The primary focus of the tape is the ways in which our society condones and promotes violence-how human beings can grow up believing in the invincibility of military might. It begins with imagery of bodies in a swamp, and ends with a young boy wandering through the same scene. Walking as if in a dream, yet more curious than horrified, the boy is established not only as Reeves's perception of himself as a child, by also as the embodiment of a kind of glaring innocence and naive cultural view of war.
Shot in slight soft-focus and almost painterly with the bloodstained water and refined composition, this opening shot also establishes the stylistic realm of the work, graphic yet artfully composed. A poem by Wilfred Owen forms the soundtrack: "If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace behind the wagon that we flung him in, and watch the white eyes writhing in his face . . . you would not tell with such high zest to children ardent for some desperate glory, the old lie--how sweet, fitting it is to die for one's country."
The imagery of the tape is combined so that it defies chronology and definition, interweaving dream and reality. Scenes of the young boy and his friends playing war games are shot with the same intensity as scenes of combat; actual film footage from the war is combined with a barrage of media images and elements that Reeves felt influenced his childhood-old war movies, the astronauts in space, toy soldiers, books of World War II photographs, the marching band of his old military school. We see the tense and nervous faces of the soldiers walking cautiously through the swamp, and a nun explains to a class of children that communists are godless and conducts exercises in civil defense.
While Reeves's commentary acts as a thread to hold the overall work together, the real visual power comes from the reenacted scenes of combat. Shot in a close-up, tightly framed, and tense style, these scenes are edited with a kind of chaotic energy that gives them a compellingly realistic feel, evoking the confusion of real violence. Alone, this reenactment would appear somewhat false and overdramatized, but in juxtaposition with select moments that are fraught with tension, such as a desperate voice on a radio screaming, "Goddammit we are all going to die out here if we don't get cover," and Reeves's descriptions of the rescue vehicle mistakenly running over wounded soldiers, it resonates with a stark intimacy. Reeves's initial intention was to make the tape using only found footage of combat, but halfway through the project he realized that the kind of footage he was looking for was not available: "I didn't want to have to shoot those scenes, to recreate. It was frightening and too close to the real thing. I was very fortunate because what came out of it was so much more compelling. It was shot in a way that allowed-real energy to come through people-everyone was really terrified, actors were really crying, and it all took place in such a short period of time that everyone almost relived that same experience."
The awakening of political sensibilities in a personality, the development of an awareness of what real violence is, and the anger inherent in that kind of emotional development are pervasive throughout the tape. Reeves explains in a frenzied monologue that, "I was a cowboy, knight, bomber pilot ... fastest gun in the west . . . a winner in any gun fight ... silent, strong, loyal, and shedding not a tear ... running from one movie dream to another . . . we played it by the book, repeating hand-me-down war stories told by blind men . . . we were born with television, what better age to learn the lies of war." And, by the end of the tape we are aware of just how extreme his emotional and conceptual changes have been. An excerpt of a speech by well-known activist Ron Kovics echoes Reeves's voice: "I am the living dead. The Memorial Day on wheels. I am your Yankee Doodle Dandy . . . Your Fourth of July firecracker exploding in the grave.." Amid the strange and belated attention being paid #o the Vietnam War in this tenth anniversary of the fall of Saigon and the extensive publicity about how uninformed most Americans are about the war, the transference of a memory evoked by these words and the tentative feeling with which Reeves ends the tape-explaining his fear of ever picking up a weapon again-take on a chilling kind of relevance.
Smothering Dreams is stylistically a raw combination--a tape that reveals an artist struggling for a balance of styles. Reeves uses a series of video effects, such as circular images on a black background and Quantel multiple images spread across the frame, to isolate memories and dramatize certain moments, bringing a hard-edged, almost cartoon quality to certain scenes. He also explores slow motion as a means of pausing and suspending the action. Images are often framed by a black background and rise in and out of black. Says Reeves, "I am interested in black as a matrix and a function of creation and disappearance. A lot of shots rise up from and go back to black, which in a certain sense is episodic but also stylistically the way I think and the way I look at things. These images rise and subside the way your breath comes and goes, the way your thoughts come in and out."
Primarily, however, the tape embodies a frenetic energy and has the prevailing feeling of an outburst, however controlled. In the long process of editing the tape, Reeves rewove this material to specifically give it the feeling of a rush of events: "To really get a# this blend, this merging of dream and reality, I would lay down a combat sequence and then take an edit of the same scene and live-jam edit it into the other sequence by popping in and out of edit while the tape was running. Just hitting it real fast, building up a frenetic rhythm."
Smothering Dreams derives its impact from the combination of both documentary and dramatic elements, each one informing the other. In this transcendance of curatorial categories, it has occasionally been criticized for being too unlike a documentary, and for being "too beautiful" or "too arty."
There may be a bit of truth in it only because if you once believed that war is romantic, even though you have cauterized yourself and burned that concept out of your psyche, you still resonate with it. So when you cut together a piece that tries in earnest to destroy that, I think there still may be a reflection of it. I find certain moments in the tape almost embarrassing. 1 tried to avoid telling my own story solely and explicitly, yet obviously I felt compelled to put my own image into the tape if even just for a few seconds. I think I would be a lot more comfortable without that, but whatever discomfort I get from doing that is probably just what I need.
After a drawn-out and often frustrating challenge of creating Smothering Dreams, Reeves spent several years working on smaller pieces that are explorations of the relationship of image and text. Reeves and Hilton ended their collaboration at this point, because Reeves was interested more and more in pursuing issues that were personally relevant to him. Hilton's influence on his work, and his continuing concern with the audio element of his tapes, however, is stilt quite apparent. Reeves made Hey Joe (1982), a psychedelic music video to a Jimi Hendrix song, for an artist videodisc project. In 1982, he was in Utah to do a show at the Utah Art Center and went to the desert for the first time. Out of that experience came Arches, a short tape in which language and landscape are spontaneously explored.
I was immediately taken by the desert. The second morning I was inspired to write a poem; words just started corning out and I wrote them down. Aysha Quinn and I worked on that poem throughout the day and also used some postcards that I had bought. To me, the special thing about Arches is that it was the first time I was able to use video in its most spontaneous way, in other words to go out and shoot in a couple of days and, juxtaposing and working with the poetry, do a series of experiments.
Arches was Reeves's first tape that attempted to construct a poem using text, sound, and image. Its primary visual motifs are images of rock formations and organic stone archways from the desert. Both Reeves and Quinn shout out the lines to his prose poems in the echoing space of the rock formations, as if they were delivering them to the desert itself. The story of a couple lost in the park, lines about "a sound welling up from the rock," interweave with the landscape. Reeves sets up a group of desert postcards in the sand and then dismantles their arrangement-a play on image representation reminiscent of the work of photographer Ken Josephson-and the desert seems to become a stage set in the tape. While Arches seems like an exercise, it has a charming, impulsive feel about it.
At this time, Reeves's interest in poetry, especially Eastern poetry with its spare wording and small, revelatory images, brought him to his ongoing project, Haiku. These short tapes, most ranging in length from 15 to 30 seconds, are composed of highly charged images. Reeves took haikus by other authors and began creating images to interact with them. Using the classic "dead cat/open mouthed/in the pouring rain" or "passing in the sky/wild geese call/that instant a feel of midair," he began by constructing literal visual translations of the words-close-up one-shot images of a dead cat in the rain or geese flying across the sky. As the series progressed, however, the images became less literal and more open ended, using poems such as "the space/between the deer/ and the shot" and "in that empty house/with broken windows rattling/a door slams and slams." Finally Reeves dropped the words altogether and just used short, intense images, many of them extended through slow motion-a breaking glass of water, a horse's mouth, hands chopping wood. There is a compact intensity in these tapes; they rise in and out of black like brief thoughts, and are refreshingly understated. Reeves initially designed them to be a part of an interactive installation.
The whole idea behind those capes was to serve as an introduction to an installation that would allow people to come in to a school or museum and get a kind of working understanding of poetry in its most pristine form and also formally as a way of having people attempt to express themselves. The idea was to store on disc thousands of still and moving images that would be called up by key words and phrases. There would obviously be many constraints and restrictions; you can only store so much. Someone would come in, be briefly introduced to the structure and concepts, and type in (or speak) certain phrases or words they wished to express in a haiku way, and these would be mirrored by the discs playing back the images. Whether this is art or not . . . I find it fascinating. So much of disc technology is being used to think up new ways of destroying people, and I think much more of it should be used in this kind of way.
Reeves used many of these images in his next tape Amida (1983), in which he began to combine his interest in language and image with his spiritual ideas. The tape operates on a balance between an explicit exploration of reincarnation (the title refers to the Buddha of infinite compassion and light) and a dream state. Images, many of which are overtly symbolic, are combined to evoke thoughts sliding past and colliding with each other in the process of understanding an idea: water rushing by, a dead cat, a dog fighting for a stick, glass breaking, a Halloween mask in water, a tire crushing a dead mouse, I Ching coins being thrown, a deserted house. Read literally, the images reveal an undercurrent of rebirth-a Buddha figure falls in the water, a dog follows it, and human footsteps reemerge. However, ultimately they reveal a much more metaphoric and open-ended interpretation. There is a mixture of a meditative contemplation in the tape, which is underscored by the beauty of the imagery and a sheer tension and despair. The tape ends with a quote by Tozan: "Marvelous! Marvelous! How mysterious the inanimate-teaching/it is difficult to hear with the ears, when we hear with the eyes, then we know it!"
Amida deals with cycles of existence, with the fact that everything comes into being, is sustained for awhile, diminishes, and dies away. It also deals a little, although not as much as Sabda, with what grace there exists in just that process. It deals with the tension of my question: If all of this is so divine, how can it seem like so much hell for a great part of the time? How can we live on the absolute edge of destruction? How can we feed off of other people's destruction, denial, and humiliation? There is a lot left unspoken, a lot of ambiguity, and openness in the tape, which to me is the real beauty of great poetry.
Throughout the course of making these tapes, Reeves was in many ways constructing a style of his own. Both Haiku and Amida use slow motion as a motif and as a means of providing contemplation and revelation. This technique has become increasingly important in his work.
Maya Deren talks about vertical moments as opposed to horizontal experiences, moments which continue to resonate from the center of instantaneous experience, radiating upward and outward and expanding to reveal connections between all things. Most people would think of movement as primarily forward and horizontal when actually real movement is vertical. In slow motion you find yourself bending low to see all the things you miss in the fast lane. The Indians call the age we live in the Kali Yuga, the dark time. Not only is it a tunnel with very little light, it's also a pace which blinds you Ninety percent of what I am working with now is slow motion; it allows me to really get something out of a thought or experience. A lot of people think that you glamorize imagery, romanticize it, and make larger-than-life mundane imagery with slow motion. But I think mundane, tiny little haiku, banal snow-falling-into-a-pan kinds of experiences have that
kind of glory and energy; we just don't have the ability to get that close and spend time with it.
Reeves's use of slow motion and the slowed digital effects of Sabda also places him among a group of video artists who are increasingly using these techniques as a specific vocabulary. Influenced by the temporal explorations of Bill Viola, these recent tapes by Edin Velez, Doug Hall, Dara Birnbaum, and others comprise a genre of work that transcends standard curatorial categories, using video to explore issues of alienation in contemporary society, and slow-motion as a means of looking inward and to suggest contemplation.
The development of a style and a means of expressing his spiritual ideas took Reeves once again to India, this time in 1983 with his wife Debra Schweitzer, who recorded the sound, and with a Guggenheim fellowship as support. The power of the material Reeves is creating out of the footage shot on that trip attests to his fascination with the Indian culture.
A lot of things exist side by side in India that I think strike at the issue of our dilemma. It is a country that is struggling to be industrial and modern, to be comfortably politically oriented and strong, to strike a balance between the two ogres of political and military might. In India, people do things the way they have done them for thousands of years alongside petrochemical plants that explode in the night. I find it very hard to believe that the people of India can do the things that they do to each other, just as I find it hard to believe what we do to each other.
f didn't go there to make a cape about Indian culture. I am much more interested in the spiritual tradition, not so much the orthodox, rigid, ritualistic culture that exists, but the emergence from time to time in a
very strong way of an identification with the divine, with Bhakti poetry and its ability to relate the experience of bliss and the connection to a personal belief in God.
Sabda is the first work to emerge out of this experience. The tape is more subtly personal than Smothering Dreams. Its philosophical realm operates at a much deeper level than that of Reeves's earlier tapes, using ancient words and drawn-out, beautiful images to construct a profound contemplation on human existence. Sabda is composed of a small fraction of the material gathered on that trip; Reeves was also gathering material for an extended work on elephants and is working on an installation wish this footage.
The word sabda refers to the original sound of the world, the primary utterance, and the tape begins with a voice chanting a song by Kabir:
When I began to hear the sound from within I kept listening to it, and I kept listening to it, and I kept listening to it. As I became absorbed in that sound, all my inner pain began to leave me; all my misery began to leave me. I became so anchored in that sound. It is such a beautiful sound.
In the opening image, the context of the work is set. Figures work bent over in fields, their movements and gestures shifting forward with a shadowing effect that forms the visual motif for the tape, while the sound of an airplane passing emerges on the soundtrack. The juxtaposition of these figures, seemingly from another time, working in the field as they have for hundreds of years, with the sounds of modern culture present the central dichotomy of the tape.
Reeves used a digital-imaging technique throughout the tape, in which slowed images seem to be composed to a series of almost fragmented yet fluid stills, and all movement becomes a progression of shadows moving together. It gives a powerfully ethereal quality to the piece, one that underscores the theme of human existence throughout the work. Reeves's use of this particular technique shows how electronic effects can be used for specific meaning, a step in an artist's construction of a visual vocabulary with effects. Many of the figures appear ghostlike, transparent yet opaque, passing through each landscape. Their transience is evocative of how minute each individual being is in the universe, and of human beings passing through the cycle of life, leaving and coming back again. These images merge to form an overall portrait of beauty and despair: beggars in the street, a man pounding on stone, birds picking at garbage, small boys hitting an animal with a stick, a shadowy figure on a bicycle, an elephant rising slowly out of wafer and reemerging with a deep sigh that resounds somewhere between relief and death.
There was an approach in digital imaging that was beautiful for Sabda in certain scenes because it allowed imagery to become transparent. The beggar woman on the street, for example, has a solidity; she is a point in time and she has an emotional quality that just pulls everything towards her, yet everything passes by. A man walks by and he is just a specter, and the traffic goes by. Everything goes by and finally she leaves the scene and everything becomes frozen. The fence, the tree, and the street aren't moving; it's as if you had walked in, experienced someone's dream, and walked out again.
The visual elements of the tape are structured on several Bhakti poems, inserted so that the words overlay images and fade in and out on different parts of the screen. In the first poem, The Paradigm, the words begin "we here/and that man/this man/and that other inbetween," and end with "good things/bad things/things that were/things that will be/being all of them/He stands there." Distinct phrases are related to specific images, each rhythmically paced so one feels as if the poem were being read aloud. At first, the dialectic of the poem is not immediately apparent, and one waits for the phrases "this woman/and that other in-between/" to resolve; then, the relationship of the images and text takes hold. There is also a slight undercurrent of humor in the various poems: "Tell me brother/what happens after death/the whole world is arguing about it/some say you become a ghost/others that you go to heaven/some say that you get close to God/and the Vedas insist you're a bit of sky reflected in a jar/fated to shatter."
The obvious undertone of reincarnation in these poems coupled with the beautiful yet often devastating imagery in the tape form a larger kind of existential view. Reeves explains: "Sabda is tied into a very strong subtext of that which has come before, in terms of a piercing understanding of the relationship of the personal and the divine. It is in praise of existence, though it is fraught with the tension of existential understanding." The despairing expression of a woman begging on the street, her hand outstretched, and the stunning beauty of hands grasping at green stalks in a field, the extremes of both Indian culture and the process of life that are so effectively composed in the tape, build on that tension. It ends on a note of the infinite process of death and rebirth: "You end brother/where you began/a reflection/rising in water/mixing with water/finally one with water."
The process of putting Smothering Dreams on tape allowed Reeves to move on to works like Sabda and to explore ideas that are more important to him and more universal perhaps. The release of the anger and frustration in that tape allowed him to approach his tools in a way that, while still intimate, reflects less directly on the artist and makes us, perhaps, look inward at ourselves.
I find Sabda and the direction that it indicates much more satisfying than the kind of moralistic and political stance that emanates from a work like Smothering Dreams. It means following a vein that I discovered perhaps along time ago but could never understand, a direction that would allow me to continue doing this work and experimenting with video as a form of expression without surrendering to the desire to express anxiety.
In a certain sense, the progression from the burst of chaotic energy and emotion of Smothering Dreams to the complex, understated style of Sabda can be likened to Reeves's fascination with poetry as the purest of art forms and his concern with preserving an integrity in his work that is based on his beliefs. His particular concept of the role of the artist in our society is one that is linked to solitude and a questioning of the role of an artist.
I think maybe when I'm 50 I'll be able to sit down and write poetry. I think of Rilke and the Bhakti poets and being able to remove yourself as much as possible from the equation of artist-transforms-subject-into-commodity and being able to find the source. Rilke writes: "poems amount to so little when you write them too early in your life. You ought to wait and gather sense and sweetness for a whole lifetime, and a long one if possible, and then, at the very end, you might perhaps be able to write ten good lines." For me, this idea linked with the value of solitude is extremely important in terms of developing strength and clarity for this kind of work. I refer back to Sabda because in Sabda there are no references to myself . . . . That poem, The Paradigm, is an anthem of beauty and tension together: we here, you there, and this person, and the other ... it just rolls forward. The poem at the end puts forth the concept that we emerge from and merge back into water, and f don't think it's talking about physical water but another kind of water and energy. To get closer to that kind of song of praise, that almost unspeakable understanding is the most acute contradiction that one can imagine. If you say to yourself I want to make art that emanates from a kind of sacred trust and to attempt to unearth what is grace in all this madness, you could find yourself just throwing ail of this equipment into a gorge and walking away.
1. All quotes are from an interview with the author, December 29, 1984.
Videotapes by Dan Reeves
Thousands Watch (1979, with John L. Hilton), 7 mins., color, sound
Body Count (1980, with John L. Hilton), 9 mins., color, sound
Smothering Dreams (1981, with John L. Hilton), 23 mins., color, sound
Hey Joe (1982), 5 mins., color, sound
Arches (1982), 6 mins., color, sound
Haiku (work-in-progress), (1982- ), color, sound
Amida (1983), 9 mins., color, sound
Sabda (1984), 15 mins., color, sound