Still frames (images taken from videos) are always interesting because they reveal moments inbetween, the interstices of action. Whereas directors, especially modern ones, are eager to rush you with the character to the next plot device, still frames force you to slow down and appreciate elements of the content that otherwise might have gone unnoticed.
In "Lessons in Swimming," on display at the Grey Art Gallery, 140 W. Fourth St., until the end of August, Bloomsburg University Assistant Professor Sue O'Donnell has fun playing in the intervals of a video at large, one that features a figure moving about in a body of water. The title makes you think "pool" but the image suggests a vast black ocean and I see more potential in the latter.
Anyway, the intrigue in the piece partially lies in the fact that the woman's movements are subtle throughout the images and only reveal themselves upon close inspection. This allows the viewer to kind of "float through time" with the figure. What I mean by this is that the viewer, freed from the immediate anticipation of any type of narrative-propelling movement, has the opportunity to connect with the piece through stillness.
O'Donnell achieves this in part by having the lone true action, a movement of the left arm, at the beginning of the piece. After that, the figure just sort of floats, and floats some more, defeating any anticipation of further movement. Then the piece ends and the viewer is left hanging with the figure.
It creates this nice feeling of just "being" with the person in the way that a good, slow-moving film would. Think "Open Water" without the threat of sharks ("Open Water" is a horror film released in 2003 about a couple who become stranded in the middle of the ocean). The best part of that film was just experiencing time with the actor and actress as they floated.
What helps the viewer get emotionally involved here is the intrigue of the figure. In a Q and A with Rolling Stone in 2009, Stevie Nicks said, "Little girls think it's necessary to put all their business on MySpace and Facebook, and I think it's a shame I'm all about mystery." Well, O'Donnell's figure is very mysterious due to the fact that its face is mostly washed out with light. It feels like a family member who's long been gone and whose facial features have been lost with time.
The stillness, the suggestion of a great black ocean and the vague figure all make the artwork feel more like a fragment of an intense dream than something I saw in a gallery.