What terrors lurk on the border between sleep and wake? What wonders exist on the plane of that netherworld? It is initially a place of peace and repose, but it can turn quickly into a hostile landscape, filled with terror and troubled by the most fantastical and grotesque distortions of what once felt real. From this surreal abyss, Alan Bennett Ilagan draws the inspiration for his latest project ~ BARDO: The DREAM SURREAL.
Bardo: The Dream Surreal marks the first proper projectby Ilagan since 2009’s ‘FireWater’. (Not taking into account photo exhibitions, tours, and a wedding.) And it is a full-fledged project, with words and pictures, images and writing. It’s got the rough assemblage of his earlier work – raw and unpolished in spots, as in the days before it all got so digitally perfect – yet it has the heft and substance of something deeper than the fluff he sometimes favors. Bardo: The Dream Surreal is a bit of a dream treatise, exploring the cloudy realm of the in-between, stretching the limits of what is real, and confounding the expectations of anyone that thought they knew all the tricks of the artist.
It is abstract, and much of it remains almost frustratingly unexplained. Ilagan has never been this obscure or hidden, and while parts of it feel like an inside joke, the very disorientation it provides is a perfect metaphor for the dream world the project inhabits. Despite its abstraction, the project feels more vivid than some of Ilagan’s recent work. Bardo is a Tibetan phrase that translates to ‘in-between’ and was originally used to describe the immediate state between life and death. Since that time, it has come to mean any state of in-between – most commonly the state of dreaming.
Rather than going the analytical route so common with dreams, Bardo: The Dream Surreal takes an earnestly surreal approach, not bothering to explain anything away or offer deeper meaning. For many, even the most delightful and happy of dreams carry with them a certain tension – and this “surreality” can be both wondrous and frightening.
A few of the images here are disturbing – most convincingly in what they leave unseen (a broken robin’s egg, a pile of feathers from a dead bird) – and some of the written passages are filled with subtle dread and underlying tension (the idea of a creature – unnamed – lurking in the water of a pool, or the notion of a television stuck in repeating time), and this is where the project is at its best. Ilagan displays a deft touch in bringing such dread just to the surface without being heavy-handed about it, and there it lingers, sinister and devious, silently staring you in the face.
Balancing the darkness and the menace is the light-hearted whimsy that once made some of his less-serious projectssuch a joy to behold. The imagesof a scarf in a weeping larch, a sweater at the bottom of a pool, and Ilagan himself as a merman are as fanciful as they are compelling. What’s more interesting is how subliminally his own persona is buried within the project. Aside from the merman passage and a few early pool shots, there is little of Ilagan himself here. And yet we seem to be entirely engulfed in his own dream, which manages to be both gloriously limitless and fatally claustrophobic.
Not unlike most of our dreams, there is a bit of a nightmarish quality to the whole scene, but Ilagan wisely underplays the darker tones. It’s as if he has sounded a low-toned bell and simply let it ring out, with wavering repercussions, and an alternately growing and fading anxiety.
It will be most interesting to see where the artist goes from here. Like many of his projects, Bardo: The Dream Surreal is unlike anything he has done before, a characteristically-uncharacteristic artistic turn, and if it’s far less revealing than some of his work, it also shows marked artistic evolution. In some ways, this project feels like one ominous, extended preamble to something larger, a grand set-up for the next stage of the journey. As such, it’s both a tease and an end unto itself, not unlike a dream.
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