Putting clutter to rest

PORTFOLIO

Using a camera as her paintbrush, Lynne Sachs has created a place to quietly confront our need for constant clamor.

September 24, 2000|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,Sun Staff

When was the last time you heard yourself think? Probably not on the way to work Friday; you were playing the radio and returning a few phone calls. Probably not at dinner last night, either. Remember? You watched CNN while you ate. Probably not the last time you visited a museum: You listened to an audio-guide while gazing at the art.

Lynne Sachs, a 39-year-old experimental filmmaker, has created an exhibit with special resonance for people in the era of multi-tasking. Her School 33 video installation, "Horror Vacui: Nature Abhors a Vacuum," makes us ponder why we seek constantly to fill our minds with words, music, clatter, stuff.

Sachs thinks of film as painting. She painted, drew and wrote poetry as a teen-ager in Memphis, Tenn. But it was not until she was a history major at Brown University -- and spent a year studying in Paris -- that she discovered film as an art form. "When I found out people could use film in the same way as a paint brush, it just blew my mind," says Sachs, who for three years has lived in Catonsville with her partner Mark Street, an associate professor in film at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. "I discovered the idea of being a 'filmmaker,' that it wasn't about a crew and a director and a hierarchy of people."

The artist's work has appeared at the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and at the Delaware Museum of Art in Wilmington and has won awards at the New Jersey Film Festival, the Athens (Ohio) Film Festival, and the New York Film Expo.

Now Sachs, who this fall is teaching a video class at the Maryland Institute, College of Art, is working on a documentary, funded in part by the Maryland Humanities Council, about the Catonsville Nine, a pioneering group of protesters against the Vietnam War in 1968 came to be called.

Since 1998, when she began the project, she has been haunted, she says, by the story of Catholic priests Philip and Daniel Berrigan, who with seven other people went into a Catonsville draft board office, removed records and burned them in front of a crowd of reporters and onlookers. They were convicted and sentenced to prison.

When not working on the documentary, Sachs shoots other images incessantly, saving them, sometimes for years, until they begin to form patterns in her mind. "The idea for this installation didn't evolve at once," she says. "Part of being an experimental filmmaker is that you shoot all the time. It's like a painting: You don't know where you are going."

A meaningful phrase

She heard the term "horror vacui" for the first time about a year ago. "It means fear of emptiness, or a compulsion to fill," she says. The notion struck a chord.

"I wondered about my own restlessness. As an artist you have this compulsion to create all the time. And I wondered about being able to live with my own thoughts. I heard the words and I looked at this work I had been collecting and I realized this is something that I had been thinking about for almost a decade."

Sachs has created a deceptively simple installation at School 33. Step behind a heavy black curtain and into a small, dimly lighted bedroom. At first glance, the installation seems to consist only of a bedroom and three ever-changing videos. Stay awhile. You will discover that a great deal is happening, some of it inside your own mind.

The walls and ceiling are white; the floor, gray. A four-poster bed sits in front of a window. The bed's white sheets and coverlet are turned down -- ready for someone to retire for the night. Two chairs painted ghostly gray line the wall.

As you soak up your surroundings with its soft lighting, constantly moving images and shadows that flicker against the sparse furnishings -- your mind wanders. On-screen images of ordinary household objects seem weirdly evocative. A duster complete with a bushy top of feathers begins to resemble a palm tree. A siren can be heard. Is that part of the installation, or the muffled sounds of real Baltimore?

Just what is real?

Sachs plays with this question: real or unreal? You are inside the white bedroom, shut away from the "real" world, yet everything here -- bed, chairs, television set -- is entirely familiar one minute and peculiar the next. You can look out the window, but it is really a video screen.

Through the window, an image appears of the artist performing mundane household activities: sweeping the floor, talking on the telephone, reading a newspaper, washing a window. Peer through this "window" to a point beyond her and you see an image of tree branches dancing in the breezes of a sunny summer day.

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