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Cloud Reading for Pilots: Disclosures

Notes on Cloud Reading for Pilots by Patrick Clancy
Albuquerque, New Mexico, 1984.

The photographs in Cloud Reading for Pilots: Disclosures resuscitate lost worlds whose inhabitants are energized and propelled into our time and space.  Often taken from old textbooks, the figurative illustrations are didactic commentaries on physical processes.  The phenomena illustrated are how-to-do-it instructions from the world of causal mechanics and the practical sciences of the Industrial Revolution – an absurd mixture of scientific experiments and homely remedies.

Although the people depicted in these images have a presence, they also function, as in the original images, more like props than representative personalities.  They are actors photographed while performing neutral actions such as lying in bed or sitting in a chair while demonstrating or illustrating certain physical principles.  Their neutrality allows these perfect strangers to participate in these recontextualized operations.

Through her use of hand coloring, photomontage and textual strategies, Gwen Widmer undermines and amplifies the original premise of the images that she uses in her work.  She makes visible the expanded latent context within the illustration that is often overlooked in the single-minded pursuit of the didactic narrative of the original texts.  When the original image is abstracted from the context of the written material, it floats free and seems to belong to many possible domains.  Secondary levels of information embedded in the visual text of the illustration ultimately become the content of the new work.  Gwen Widmer’s reworking of this material brings the background to the foreground, and amplifies the aura of this level of signification within the artifact.

The sense of humor that one finds in the Footnotes series, in misplaced letters (scene, scream) or in the information on the back of the collaged figures in The Four Stages of Man, is the result of an eccentric archivist’s sensibility combined with an inspired archeological and semiological investigation of the material artifact.  There is a sounding of the deep that resonates and makes evident multiple aspects of the artifact that go beyond the flatly illustrated pages of the original material.

Frequently two or more simultaneous realities are made plausible.  In Disclosures, the figure of the woman disrobing underwater is obviously from a manual on water safety.  But at the same time it explores a dream-like probing of the unconscious – the deep waters of mythology, the fantasy projection of a dream lover, the sensual pleasures of floating.  Likewise, the man lying in bed with suspended legs seems arrested in an extended moment of antigravity, touching down or lifting off in a position of levitation.  The diagrams beneath him suggest instructions for disconnecting the body from its physical moorings.

The figures are floating, flying, gliding or in some way being physically or psychically transported in many of the images.  Other gestures (the hand adjusting the woman’s vertebrae, generating a fire, or touching the bottom of a foot) also seem to be notations or disclosures of techniques for activating this level of experience.  The many images of concealed eyes signal the voyagers’ isolated connection with us in time and space.  They appear to have been motivated or propelled into our space through a mechanism that they possess the knowledge to operate.  Their avoidance of direct eye contact with us allows them to maintain their simultaneous place within the original space as well as our own.  The one major exception to this reading of the work is the redheaded boy sun-bathing at the sanatorium who breaks the spell with his conspiratorial glance directed at the viewer.

In the page from the Bluejackets’ Manual, the rigidity of the umbilical-like cord connecting two locations allows forces to travel in both directions.  Captions to these images caution of possibilities that might also break the spell.  The knotted wire, the fire generated by the triangle, the boy’s directional glance are all equivalent images that connect the two worlds, allowing for travel back and forth between the real and imagined, here and there, then and now.

Gwen Widmer’s reactivation of this data from her image banks and the use of selected images from her notebooks to document her private mythologies are part of a phenomenology of communication.  Based on the experiences and observations of her travels through the images and texts of her archive, there are personal, even hermetic, procedures underway.  However, these works are not inaccessible.  The public, cultural domain of these images as well as her sense of humor and use of familiar procedures such as reading, interpreting, decoding and fantasizing allow the work to transcend the private, non-informative level of personal experience.  We all recognize within these works familiar subjective insights.  The title, Cloud Reading for Pilots:  Footnotes and Disclosures, suggests a guidebook for those who would also travel by means of the displaced artifacts of an ahistoric culture of images.


-See bookwork Portraits and Other Disclosures