New Cooley Gallery Exhibit: “Dreams of Unknown Islands”



On Saturday, September 12th, Reed College’s own Cooley Gallery opened its doors to welcome Reed students, faculty, and community members to its newest exhibit: “Dreams of Unknown Islands.” The creative mind behind this exhibit is Sasha Wortzel: a New York City and South Florida based artist who uses sculpture, film and video, sound, installation, and performance in order to explore the past and its effect on contemporary American life. However, this installation is not so much an exhibit as it is an immersive experience into the cyclical process of human grief and acceptance. Wortzel invites you into a room completely of their own creation, not an art gallery but a foreign land inside her mind. There are multiple vantage points within the room that allow you to slowly piece together the meaning behind the multiple visual and tactile elements of the piece. 

The core imagery that pervades “Dreams of Unknown Islands” is that of the beach at dusk. She transforms and manipulates this familiar theme to illustrate grief and rebirth through visual modes such as film, sculpture, architecture, and lighting. The floor is re-paved to resemble a beat down boardwalk, sculptures of large, smooth, white conch shells sit at each viewing point, and the lighting emulates a sunset by consisting mostly of different yellows, oranges, and pinks. 

For many, nostalgia is felt powerfully while exploring the room. The beachy imagery invokes childhood memories of beach trips, piling into the car in damp swimsuits, with wet towels against the seats so the sand didn’t stick, noses too pink, and eyelashes coated in salt; memories of looking out the window mourning the loss of the fun beach day due to the falling sun and incoming night. 

Unlike most traditional art exhibitions, it is truly necessary to sit while you experience “Dreams of Unknown Islands.” A speaker is built into each seating area so that when noise sounds, the vibrations reverberate through the seat and into your body and mind. Wortzel manipulates our perspective through her seating arrangement, as each seat directs your attention towards a specific area of the exhibit. The seats are also created so that some are more conducive to groups, while others are more fit for solitary thought. On some seats she even invites you to sit back and relax by including a backrest. As Sasha Wortzel manipulates your physical position within the exhibit, she simultaneously manipulates your brain and forces you to break away from artistic analysis. She does this by engaging all of your senses and thereby focuses your attention on experiencing her art, not giving you enough time to wonder whether the art itself has “merit” or is “good or bad”.

Sound is also key in Wortzel’s ability to fully immerse her viewers into the dreamworld she  has created. The sound does not stay in one place. Rather, it circulates around the room, spending time in different spaces. For example, the bass notes of the soundscape may emanate from one speaker while the lighter notes and accents emanate from the rest. Voices reciting Kaddish, a Jewish prayer, echo through the space. These voices blend with gusts of wind, cicadas, dry grass, reeds blowing and moving together, and waves crashing against a beach. This combination expresses a connection between humans and the natural environment, as well as how humans (like Wortzel herself) use nature to express and portray distinctly human emotions. The relationship between humans and nature is also illustrated through the contrast between Wortzel’s smooth, geometric, man-made conch shell sculptures, and her videos of the beach itself. In a way, she questions her own artistic method by showing us the disconnect between man-made representations of reality, and what the reality itself actually looks and acts like. 

“Dreams of Unknown Islands” is a must-see exhibit and is an excellent addition to the visual arts on display around campus. Attend alone or with a friend, but remember to keep your mind open and receptive to the different sensations Sasha Wortzel’s multimedia piece imposes on you. 

Note; Wortzel’s website was used for specific information about the artist: http://www.sashawortzel.com/about 

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