Far Away, So Close

Last year Tag Purvis lost three of his best friends to AIDS-related illnesses. They now appear in one part of Purvis's film installation, Devil or Angel, at the South Florida Art Center's Ground Level Gallery on Lincoln Road: images of two men and one woman projected onto sheets of translucent material that hangs behind three wooden chairs placed on a small white platform. The chairs are visible through the fabric, and the projected film portraits of the artist's departed companions appear to be sitting on them, as Purvis's friends bend and gesture like spirits enjoying a spectral visit. Purvis has written lines from the Tennyson poem "Sweet and Low," about a seafaring man coming home to his family. across the front of the fabric screens.

"This whole thing is about acceptance," says Purvis, referring to the piece, which includes two other installations that feature 16mm film images. In the past Purvis, who grew up in Meridian, Mississippi, eating mutton and grits for breakfast and playing in his mother's azalea garden, has focused on the constricting traditions of Southern culture. His short films Peas N Corn and Sweet N Sour were inspired by his Aunt Peggy and other female relatives whose lives revolve around the kitchen and the beauty parlor.

More recent Purvis works have explored aspects of growing up gay in the U.S. Last spring, for example, he filmed interviews with homosexual student couples at Harvey Milk High School in New York City. Another project, America the Beautiful -- an eight-minute film loop of two men kissing -- caused controversy on Lincoln Road when Purvis projected it onto the storefront window of his studio.

Purvis's films have always been based on personal experience. But for this show, in which he shares the gallery space with multimedia artist Christine Tamblyn, he felt the need to do a piece that was directly autobiographical -- specifically, to create a work about his being HIV-positive. "Maybe there's a reason for this, why I've been here so long," says the 32-year-old Purvis, who found out about his condition eight years ago but has remained healthy nonetheless. "It's time to deal with it in my work."

For another element of the piece, two American flags are projected onto another piece of sheer fabric in a continuous film loop; meanwhile "The Star Spangled Banner" plays. As one listens to the music, the sounds of two men having sex become clear in the background. "Accepting this disease meant accepting it on a lot of different levels," explains Purvis. Dressed in jeans and a Tammy Wynette T-shirt, he sits in his current second-floor studio on Lincoln Road. "I've always felt very American. I'm very patriotic and the whole stigma attached to this [AIDS] in this country is very hard. I've also had to accept the way that I got the virus, which was 'the wrong way' -- having sex with a man -- if there is a wrong way. This part of the piece for me was about accepting that you're a gay American with the disease."

Elsewhere in the gallery, Purvis projects an image of himself, naked, in a fetal position. Bathed in an orange light that creates a liquidlike effect, his body rotates in a circle, appears to fall, and then bobs back up again. The film is shown on a fabric screen printed with the words "Accept that all things given are a gift to you and part of your learning process." The filmmaker notes, "These embryos sort of represent me as preparing mentally and physically to go. It's a realization that it's all okay."

He adds that after the death of his friend Lori in April, he went through what he calls a spiritual awakening and was able to come to terms with the illness, to talk about it: "It was the last bit of oomph. I said it's over with all that avoidance and anger." Now Purvis says he is even thankful for the changes the virus has imposed on him. "When someone finds out about this [being HIV-positive], it sets a lot of changes in place, but often those changes are for the better," he points out. "It seems to me it makes a lot of people's hearts grow."

In the back half of the exhibition space, Christine Tamblyn dissects the lives of ten legendary women -- Josephine Baker, Simone de Beauvoir, Catherine the Great, Colette, Marie Curie, Marlene Dietrich, Isadora Duncan, Frida Kahlo, Margaret Mead, and Gertrude Stein -- in Mistaken Identities, an interactive CD-ROM displayed on a Macintosh computer terminal.

Each of these popular female role models is introduced via a virtual gallery of photographic portraits. A page of text, illustrated with a Quicktime movie image in the upper lefthand corner, reveals some standard information about the subject A for example, "Josephine Baker became the highest paid chorus girl in the world." This leads to a "room" where any of six sections can be selected by clicking on icons located on a shelf: a TV, a photo album, a book, et cetera. Clicking on a freestanding doll beside the shelf takes the viewer to the next woman's story.

Entering the section called "Timeline" reveals a screen with ten chains -- or charm bracelets -- of small bright-colored drawings. Clicking on the pictures on each chain will reveal significant episodes in the lives of each of the ten women. Under the category heads "Birth," "Dilemma," "Career," "Scandal," and "Death," Tamblyn details the subjects' rises and falls, homosexual and heterosexual affairs, tragic accidents, penchant for cross-dressing, nervous breakdowns, drug addictions, "bizarre domestic arrangements," "eccentric eating habits," and so on. These anecdotes, incorporating text and Quicktime movie sequences, can be experienced chronologically, following the life of each woman, or randomly, by making selections from each category.

Other sections include "Scrapbook," in which readings from the subjects' autobiographical writings are combined with informal snapshots, and "TV Movies," which offers clips from documentaries and commercial films about the women. In different sections of the program, Tamblyn acts as both narrator and commentator on the women's behavior (in portions of "Timeline," she is seen rolling her eyes or mopping her brow), acknowledging the subjective influence of any biographer on someone else's life story.

As the viewer experiences the information relayed on the CD-ROM through text, pictures, and video, the stories of these individuals soon start to overlap and intertwine, establishing representational patterns for the archetypal heroine. What first seems a compendium of biographical notes on these historical, intellectual, and cultural figures ultimately emerges as a commentary on how society has manipulated their images at different points in history. Tamblyn purposefully has chosen women working in traditionally masculine arenas, women who in their day were perceived as "difficult," women later adopted as feminist role models and glorified by the mainstream media.

"These women have been made to symbolize certain qualities and to be seen as good girls or bad girls," notes Tamblyn as she demonstrates the CD-ROM in her apartment on South Beach. "I wanted to not necessarily contradict that, but to subvert it and have there be other layers at the same time." Take Marlene Dietrich. "I was interested in showing that the Hollywood studios sort of marketed her as the ideal wife and mother," Tamblyn explains. "She's actually this very ambiguously gendered woman: She had lesbian and heterosexual affairs. There's a lot about cross-dressing and bisexuality throughout this work. Also they were enslaved by a particular man and then they escaped that situation. Like Colette, who was forced to write by her husband, who literally locked her in the apartment and made her produce these novels and didn't give her any royalties. She wanted to get away, but she didn't have any money. So she studied mime and had this alternative career in the theater, and that's how she escaped his control.

"Mainly what I tried to show was how these women's strategy for survival was to constantly reinvent themselves," she continues. "In a way, they were trying to resist being stereotyped or being put into constraining roles. They are still role models, but I'm bringing out different lessons that aren't the accepted lessons. Basically they have to do with strategies for survival in an extremely hostile social context."

In her work as a performance artist, videomaker, and writer for art magazines and feminist journals since the late Seventies, Tamblyn frequently has dealt with issues of gender politics. Her first CD-ROM, She Loves It/She Loves It Not: Women and Technology (exhibited this past spring at Miami-Dade Community College's Centre Gallery), explores ways in which women have been excluded from gaining technological knowledge. That work, one of the winning entries in the "New Voices, New Visions" digital art contest cosponsored by the New York-based Voyager Corporation, is included on a new CD-ROM produced by Voyager.

Tamblyn, who moved to Miami from San Francisco last year, teaches computer art and art theory courses at FIU. She is one of the few Americans currently working with CD-ROMs as an artistic medium. "It's like writing a book -- it's very detail-oriented, organizational, tedious work, which doesn't fit the temperament of a lot of artists," she asserts. "It's difficult because the software is so new there's always bugs in it. It's all trial and error."

While Tamblyn admits that Mistaken Identities, which is on sale at the gallery, is best experienced on a one-to-one basis on a home computer, she feels that exhibiting her work on a viewer station in a gallery or museum allows a diverse audience to experience the work, rather than limiting its scope to computer aficionados or owners. "What I like about the gallery situation is that it's more democratic," the artist says. "I think my work can be judged much better within sort of a mainstream art context, because the ideas that go into it are much more ideas that come out of postmodern theory than from Radio Shack or Popular Electronics.


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