Vancouver native and Berlin-based artist Jeremy Shaw’s video art installation at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA), Liminals, is a dystopian exploration of the human psyche. Set several decades into the future when human extinction is imminent, the film follows the lives of eight individuals.
Taking place in a single, drab interior setting, Liminals is free of spatial and temporal context; the cagey interior could belong to any decade or found within the bowels of any city. The eight characters in the film are tasked with averting the impending human demise through a scientific-spiritual process of DNA augmentation and religious rituals. ‘The Liminal’ is the titular term used to describe the elevated state of mind that the participants are attempting to reach—a state of consciousness that will allow for the next step in evolution and ensure the continuation of human existence.
The film is primarily shot with a 16mm camera, giving the footage a nostalgic quality. The story opens with a description of the historic background voiced over footage of the enclosed space that provides the setting for most of the pseudo-documentary. The film transitions into a mock interview with one of the characters—a shirtless and oddly symmetrical man speaking in an incomprehensible dialect somewhere between Boston slang and Quebecois French. Much of the work fixates upon the ritual dancing and stretching of the group of eight, cutting rapidly in and out of facial shots and broader panoramas to the beat of an intensifying rhythm.
Liminals comes to a close as shots of the soft edges of characters’ limbs and hair transform into a frenzy of rotating colours and shifting pixels. The concluding sequence is a frightening and surreal whirlwind of psychedelic imagery in which heads are born from heads and human forms emerge from a rainbow rendition of psychic trauma. This visual vomit is the place Shaw describes as ‘The Liminal’. The scene leaves viewers fidgeting in their seats, perturbed at the simultaneous push and pull of the scene’s declared significance contrasts with its overwhelming abjection. This overstimulation raises the question of whether ‘The Liminal’ is truly a state of transcendence or merely the result of an overindulgence in ‘consciousness-expanding’ substances.
In Liminals, Shaw appeals to both the human fear of the unknown and the tendency to inflate one’s sense of self. Still, a feeling of mundanity pervades much of the work; while Shaw has constructed an apocalyptic narrative to accompany the buttery film quality, one begins to question whether it is the draw of the plot or simply Shaw’s lens that elevates the film into an art form. The final sequence salvages the work: Not for its cinematographic brilliance, but, merely because viewers are left blinking and befuddled enough at the end of the film to simply register that they saw something.
What is most striking about Liminals is not its acid-trip, indie-girl-with-a-camera aesthetic, but the psychological process of experiencing video art within a gallery setting. Liminals functions as a quiet and forceful environment to participate in an extended artistic experience rather than the forty second pause most paintings receive. For the more recreational viewer, Shaw’s work is a test of endurance—provoking the same feelings associated with reading poems in eighth grade English class, where you just didn’t quite ‘get it.’ Despite a self-proclaimed interest in the avant-garde as an Art History major, I found myself eying fellow viewers, wondering if I could outlast them in this periodically-unsettling viewing experience and claim the title of ‘best audience member.’