Project Series 12: Charles LaBelle
Charles LaBelle’s work—the video installation Horror of Light, and two photographs from the Illuminated Mounds series—reflects his long-standing interest in subjectivity, memory, and movement. For almost ten years, LaBelle has created photographs, drawings, sculptures, and installations that address the interrelationships among cartography, documentary narratives, the built environment, and the individual. He investigates “in-between” moments, states, and territories—the often-overlooked spaces, objects, and people of contemporary society. By transforming ordinary experiences and images into the oddly extraordinary, LaBelle creates objects that alter our perceptions of the mundane and the profound in everyday life.
In past work, LaBelle’s interest in interstitial moments and transitional spaces manifested itself in explorations of ideas and images associated with such things as hotels, motels, night life, discarded furniture, used clothes, and passing clouds. The photographs and objects that resulted from these earlier explorations often addressed the relationship of the body to its surroundings and the experiences and memories of the body.
LaBelle’s process also relates to his relationship with the body and space. He frequently sets up systematic, almost obsessive, parameters within which to work. Over the years, he has undertaken a variety of tasks: He documented every building he entered every day for a predetermined amount of time; he recorded all the neon signs in his neighborhood—one color at a time; and he rescued, then decorated, mattresses and sofas found around Los Angeles and returned them to their original sites.
While LaBelle created Horror of Light and the photographs concurrently, Horror of Light is part of a large, yearlong project that he worked on called 2001: A Space Odyssey. This project involved shooting video footage of the road every time and everywhere he drives during the course of the year; a second tiny camera mounted on the steering wheel continually videotaped him as he drives. Specific moments in that footage began to interest him, and he started to think of ways to distill them into their own discrete works. Horror of Light was the second of these.
The search for illumination—in all its readings—has long been of interest to LaBelle, and is particularly apparent in the work presented here. Deriving from a recent road trip across the United States, Horror of Light consists of footage shot during repeated journeys through the mile-long Eisenhower Tunnel in Colorado. It may represent the self-searching implicit in the notion of the “road trip,” the illusive search for the light at the end of the tunnel, the transformation implied in a journey through the “underworld,” and a simple drive to locate oneself in time and space.
In this recent work, LaBelle’s process has shifted to become more poetic and performative. Here the relationship to the body is subtle—the bodily presence is implied in his trips through the tunnel, and only hinted at in the Illuminated Mounds. To create the photographs, LaBelle worked at night on empty construction sites. Using very long exposures, he illuminated the mounds by moving his lights over the piles of dirt—essentially painting the mounds with light.
The exhibition of work by Charles LaBelle was the twelfth in the Pomona College Museum of Art’s Project Series, an ongoing program of small exhibitions that brings to the Pomona College campus art that is experimental and that introduces new forms, techniques, or concepts.
Essay by Charles LaBelle
I shot the original footage for this video installation in May 2001 during a cross-country road trip from L.A. to New York. It was shot inside the Eisenhower Memorial Tunnel just west of Denver on Interstate 70. The tunnel is over two miles long and the product of America’s post-World War II economic and suburban expansion. Specifically, it is part of the Eisenhower administration’s creation of a system of superhighways across the continent. This system, which effectively replaced the more rambling one that Kerouac traversed, remains the backbone of American ground transportation today. I had never been to Colorado nor driven through the Eisenhower Tunnel, but when I saw it on the map—two red triangles indicating the tunnel’s openings—I knew it was exactly the place I’d been looking for, and that I had to go. In many ways my work has always been an excuse to go someplace unknown, to put myself in the position of being estranged. In shooting the footage I made more than a dozen passes back and forth through the tunnel, both at dusk and then again the following dawn. I spent the night in Silverthorne, at the base of the mountain, in a recently opened motel that smelled of new carpeting and glue.
Horror of Light grew out of a larger, yearlong project called 2001: A Space Odyssey. This project involved shooting video footage of the road (with a small surveillance camera through the windshield of my Ford F-150 pickup) every time and everywhere I drove during the course of the year. Additionally, a second tiny camera mounted on the steering wheel continually videotaped me as I drove. The amount of video footage I recorded is substantial: two 2-hour tapes each day, sometimes more. Eventually, specific moments in that footage began to interest me, and I started to think of ways to distill them into their own discrete works. Horror of Light is the second of these, part of a series of Road Works that may eventually include up to six separate installations. The first piece, Sunset at Dawn, is a double video projection of Sunset Boulevard shot at sunrise that was shown in September 2001.
During the making of 2001, each time I drove through a tunnel I was fascinated with the image and the eerie psychological pull of it: the way this pull echoed the physical passage of the body, encapsulated and hurtling through the narrow space. I was also drawn to the way this passage could represent a kind of transformation—the idea (or hope) that when you emerge out the far end, you are not the same person who entered. This is different from the belief that something better awaits down the road—the proverbial “light at the end of the tunnel”—which is a lie. I suspect that at the heart of our desire for change is a yearning for permanence. We move forward seeking stillness. We rush to halt time. In Horror of Light, I purposely stop short of emerging from the tunnel. (It’s a blinding moment, and when your eyes adjust you see the snowcapped Rocky Mountains all around you.) Here, I am more interested in the interstitial passage, the would-be transformation, the state of continual change. All of these recent works question my drive to locate myself in time and space. They are an acknowledgment and a reconciliation of a subjective fluidity, a lack of determinism and a veiled impulse for self-obliteration.
The video is a circular image that is projected onto a concave disk that rests on the floor. The distortion of the image was achieved by strictly lo-fi means. The original footage was shot with three surveillance cameras simultaneously. I placed a cardboard toilet-paper roll over each and covered the lenses with a variety of things: vaseline, spit, condoms, water-bottle caps, potato chip bags. Further degradation of the image was achieved by re-recording the footage, slowing it as I did so, pausing and advancing frame by frame with the VCR remote. The audio track combines three elements: the ambient sound of driving through the tunnel; “Blackout” by Scorn, a Birmingham, U.K.-based project by Mick Harris; and an untitled track from Japanese noise musician Keiji Haino’s CD “Saying I love you, I continue to curse myself.”