By Anna Norris
A headless man, feet in the sand and water beneath a sunrise (or sunset) is projected onto the main wall, greeting viewers as soon as they walk into the large gallery of the Ernest G. Welch School of Art and Design. A heavy pulse vibrates throughout the room. On either wall beside the central projection are more projections of waves splashing. In the back of the room, a TV sits solitary on the floor, playing looped footage of a man speaking. Another screen shows someone laying in the sand, waves of sand blowing over him.
As people drift in and out of the gallery, they stand for a moment as if hypnotized, pondering the question “where do we go from here?”
These videos are the culmination of three years of James O’Donnell’s journey in the studio program to get his Master of Fine Arts, a program in which he chose to concentrate on Drawing and Painting, allowing him to push his boundaries into film.
O’Donnell’s interest in art began as a way for him to express his feelings through photography when he was in high school, an alternative way of dealing with conflict.
“After that initial feeling of wanting to destroy, it’s interesting that I ended up choosing creation,” says O’Donnell. “Ever since that moment when I started to make pictures trying to symbolize and represent metaphorically the way I was feeling through different characters and different images, that’s what my work has been based on. It’s a way of expressing myself and my feelings and things that are going on in my life to others. There was that one intersection of fate, I suppose.”
O’Donnell says that he sees art as a way to help people get through difficult situations.
“It’s like a partner relationship, like you’ll always be indebted to it, or grateful.”
O’Donnell’s exhibition, while a culmination of the work he has accomplished in the past three years, is not like some of the other M.F.A. exhibitions.
“My project is a lot different from many people’s in that it certainly contains the culmination of all those things, but it definitely wasn’t a three year project,” says O’Donnell. “It’s one work unto itself, whereas a lot of people will show a compilation of works, a series of things they’ve been working on.”
O’Donnell says that the concept behind his exhibit is essentially dealing with the question “where do we go from here?” which can mean different things to different individuals. In this way, his exhibit is driven towards the viewer.
“The art exhibit itself is activated by the viewer. It doesn’t exist without them, technically, so what they bring is valid.
“It’s just one of these things that everyone has said or done or thought of,” says O’Donnell. “It just seems to be one of those quintessential, existential sorts of questions.
For O’Donnell, finishing up graduate school has driven the question into his mind. He was inspired to create this exhibit after reading Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh, a transcendentalist writer who wrote about the virtues of solitude and spirituality achieved by going out and living by oneself on the beach.
According to O’Donnell, the project started as a way for him to connect with himself and understand the self. Over the summer, he camped on Cumberland Island for a week by himself with his gear, one visual in his mind: himself, sitting in the chair in the tide.
“It had a performative aspect. It was something where there was stillness because that was being experienced,” says O’Donnell of the footage of the headless man sitting in the chair in the tide. “That particular day it was about 40 degrees but it never felt like that because you’re just absorbed by it. You watch the waves and the horizon and you’re seeing this magnificent scene, and you just lose yourself.”
According to O’Donnell, the sounds pulsating throughout the gallery were a combination of waves and manipulated boat engine noises.
“There’s a lot of overlap there between the rhythmic noises and how they can be overwhelming but then can also become lulling,” he says.
“It just goes back to this question. It’s such a personal thing, but it’s such a universal thing, and somewhere in between there is just amazing stuff.”
See the article on The Signal’s website.