by Sukanya GargMay 12, 2020
Artist Joe Ramirez played an alchemist in his latest immersive installation, The Gold Projections (August 2-31, 2019), a work that blended painting and moving image to transport his audience into the realm of dreams. The visual imagery has a spatial depth, drawing the viewer in. There is an absence of sharpness and yet the images are so evocative; the projections on the gold disks created a form of alchemy.
While the experiential installation featured two films – Vermilion and Somnium, Ramirez created about 21 such films, or rather ’moving images‘ as he prefers to call them. Describing the films, he says, “These are the last two and they are epic. Somnium, which was produced and finished in 2017, is three-and-a-half hours long and Vermilion is an hour-and-40 minutes. The films are done in verses as opposed to scenes. So they are very much like poems. I am a painter; I come at it as film through painting. Somnium started when I discovered the short story by Johannes Kepler, the 1620 piece of writing, that was basically the first piece of writing that caught up with science fiction. It was in Latin; Somnium means dream. It’s surreal, it’s dreamy, it deals with travelling to the far side of the moon, initiation, it deals with witchcraft. Johannes Kepler, the astronomer’s mother was condemned of witchcraft and for 20 years he tried to exonerate her. It’s his journey. There is an older astronomer in it and I used a German rockstar here named Blixa Bargeld, who is the elder and Patti Smith is the silent narrator in the film. It’s designed to be projected circular on the disk and the entire three-and-a-half hours is completely silent. It’s designed so that a person could enter at any of the verses. In one verse, you get the feeling of the Gold Projections and you get a sense of the moving image. Somnium is stylised after Goya’s black paintings. I make drawings and develop the dreams, it’s always coming from painting. The door is from the moving image in through painting.”
Vermilion in contrast is a contemporary piece commissioned by the WZB Berlin Social Science Center at the Pierre Boulez Saal, Berlin’s new concert hall designed by renowned architect Frank Gehry. Ramirez was asked to do a piece on ‘New Europe’. To approach the same, Ramirez said, “I really wanted to come at it through the door of the poetic and dreams. Like when you are watching The Gold Projections, it’s very much like dreaming. It’s almost a meditation.”
The work was shot in the south of Spain, creating a sense of complementarity between Somnium and Vermilion. Describing the moving image, Ramirez explains, “It deals with displacement. It’s about longing, a longing to go home. It’s about migration, first to the north because of economic possibility or climate justice or whatever, the seeking of a better life but the interior world calling home". The title of the work references the colour, which is an orange-red. Ramirez draws the link saying, “It’s ground from cinnabar, which was a mercury mineral which was dug up in Spain by slaves long ago. It was very expensive at the time, more expensive that lapis. It’s important, the colour of the land, the colour of the road. Gold projections are painting and dreams. It’s basically a language that hasn’t been done before and it is finding its path between these two forms.”
Gold projections are painting and dreams. It’s basically a language that hasn’t been done before and its finding its path between these two forms. – Joe Ramirez
Inspired by filmmakers like Andrei Tarkovsky, who opened the door cinematically to dreams, the ability of film to convey the same in language excited him. He compares it to standing in front of a Rothko painting saying, “It’s a chance to let go.” He further reminisces, “I remember a long time ago I saw Pollock’s Lavender Mist at MOMA and I had never seen the original and had seen it in books for years. But, when I stood in front of it, the thing was just moving and breathing in every direction and the colour harmony is a total masterpiece. That’s the feeling that I really want. Or someone like James Turrell, where in so many ways he changes everything but in his more simple pieces, it’s a colour change and it’s a drift and he is breathing light but it’s one big breath for him. But, for me, it’s more like breathing our lungs.” When working with his cinematographer then, he is always in search of ’breathing light‘ as he puts it.
The combination of painting and moving image as projected on unique hand-crafted, Renaissance-style water-gilded disks, the technique patented by Ramirez now, owes itself to the artist’s painstaking journey of skilful excellence and resolve. Talking about the same, he says, “I used to do fresco painting for years, I am a master woodworker. First it was woodworking for 12 to 15 years, that’s what I originally studied in England and did in Chicago. So, I knew materials really well. I shifted to painting when I got to the Art institute of Chicago and fell in love with painting and the painted image.” Further describing his technique, he explains, “One layer is woodworking, second layer is painting and those became together. I would move between those. The third layer I discovered under Tarkovsky, the Russian director and that just changed me within a day and the next day I bought a camera. I could move between those three layers without restrictions; after 10 to 15 years, I needed to do my own work in my own language, I went back to England. That is when the Gold Projections started.”
The Gold Projections went public after 10 years of lockdown and went straight to the State Museum. Ecstatic, Ramirez adds, “I always knew that the work was huge not just in scale, but I knew that it had this potential kind of like a supernova.”
Ending up at the Pierre Boulez Saal, the architecture of the place had a huge influence on the display of the work. Describing the concert hall, Ramirez says, “The room is square or rectangle and then there is an ellipse in the centre and the next layer is also an ellipse. It’s basically a mannerist room, a design from Baroque times, but a post-modern version. But it is very simple like a Japanese temple. It only holds 800 people. Frank Gehry is a hero of mine and has been for 15 years. All of a sudden, when they came to me and said would you do a show, I said yes, absolutely! I thought Frank’s design is very much like an eye; the circle is in the centre. So I took that circle and you have two disks that face each other. The room is breathing because of the wood, the temperature, the space. Wood is always breathing and so I realised this is about breathing light. People stand in the centre, the reflection is the ellipse, which is on the floor, which is an homage to Frank’s design and then you have the two circles that you can stand in front of and enter visually.”
The final rendition was like a waterfall of light. People were able to fall onto a different part of their brain rather than the hyper rational one. As Ramirez puts it, “They can go to a place where they can suspend and float and that’s my job - to create a river that they can just go on.”
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