Midmorning visitors to the Austin Central Library find themselves bathed in kaleidoscopic hues of pink, blue, yellow and orange light by the two-story plexiglass installation “If a ? falls…,” the work of multimedia artist Susan Scafati.
On view until June 12, the large-scale plexiglass shapes are suspended in the library’s east-facing second and third-story windows overlooking Austin’s ever-changing skyline and Lady Bird Lake. The library’s so-called “living room,” a top floor lounge space with outlets and charging stations aplenty, also displays silver gelatin prints and sculptures by Scafati.
Scafati and her nine-year-old daughter are habitués of the library, which Scafati refers to as a “home away from home.” The opportunity to display her work in a public setting interested the artist, whose work often touches on themes of technology, communication and urban landscapes.
“I think that aesthetically, and psychologically, that influence of seeing cities construct and destruct plays into these installations,” says Scafati. “To have [the installation] in these windows where it’s overlooking downtown — the cityscape that I was looking at when this imagery originated — feels powerful to me.”
The exhibit has appeared once before in fall 2018 at St. Louis’ Bonsack Gallery. The plexiglass panels reflect Scafati’s early fascination with photography, light, prisms and filters. At a young age she received a broken camera from her grandfather. But instead of getting it fixed, she embraced the camera’s light leaks in the darkroom and used them to develop her own playful style, incorporating filters and manipulating light.
“These lighting and filter choices were the way I visually expressed my story,” says Scafati.
Plexiglass is one of Scafati’s most treasured materials. A 2017 CoLab Projects exhibition she participated in titled “t e x t s c a p e” featured layered text boxes made out of plexiglass and other materials to comment on chat bubbles as important artifacts of today’s visual culture.
“We put our thoughts and desires into these boxes,” says Scafati. “In that way they’re ironically sacred, but they’re also so prevalent now that we don’t even think about them. They’re subliminal.”
On the library’s sixth floor, intimate portraits of people on their smartphones grace the walls, their LED screens softly lighting their faces. Scafati was inspired to take the photos after a trip to the National Portrait Gallery in London where she noticed seas of tourists snapping selfies with the 15th-century Italian tempera portraits. She found similarities in the lighting of the old masters’ painted subjects and the museum-goers faces as they captured selfies alongside the art, and she felt moved by people’s intense need to take pictures with the notable works.
“It’s an ‘I was here; this happened’ gesture. I started to think about it as coming from a primal need, part of an ancient human history going back to cave paintings, when someone would put a handprint on the wall,” says Scafati. “It’s a mark of their time and existence.”
Scafati chose the silver gelatin process for the prints to help enforce the ancient/modern duality and because it affords the darkest shadows. The running question throughout the exhibit, hinted at by the exhibition title, is one of perception versus reality: “if a tree falls in the forest and no one was there to hear it, did it even make a sound?” further, “if we are living through screens, how does that impact our existence?”
“Me & V ?,” a diptych (any object with two flat plates attached at a hinge) of UV-printed mirrors depicting people’s smartphone photos of the “Venus de Milo,” was also inspired by a visit to an over-crowded art museum. Scafati was fascinated by people’s desire to shoot themselves with the icon of beauty and the way they would enact the statue’s movements. The compilation of the photos results in an ambiguous Venus de Milo form. One side of the diptych is a negative and the other a positive, to represent presence and absence.
By layering, mirroring and reflecting light, the colorful plexiglass works act as a metaphor for today’s fluctuating virtual culture. Scafati looks forward to seeing how the public captures their experiences with her work.
“The piece comes to life when it interacts with the environment and people,” says Scafati. “The photographs and videos that then happen from people’s responses in the space are a portion of the show, too.”
Acting as somewhat of a cultural anthropologist in her artistic practice, Scafati sees universal signs — like text boxes and emojis — as part of our collective identity. While most people don’t belabor their consumption of social media and selfies, Scafati looks at the larger meaning of our digital culture, how it is being archived, how it is prescribed meaning, and ultimately — how it might affect our future as a society.
“We don’t know how device usage is going to impact eyesight or children’s development; the effects of loss of handwriting, social isolation, radiation, spine and nerve issues, data security,” says Scafati.
“Going back to the textbox, we trust these forms with intimate thoughts, desires and data. We don’t know how that data is being used. We don’t know the future histories of the data that we’re creating now. That feels like something to step back and think about.”