JEREMY BLAKE'S "WINCHESTER"
by S. E. Chambers
I was wandering around soaking up the art at the Whitney Biennial 2002, when I heard strange sounds. The hair on my neck stood straight up. I shivered and followed the sound - down a short, pitch black, narrow hallway. My senses sharpened as the hallway ended with a quick turn to the left. A huge screen, projecting images filled with streaks of color, stopped me dead in my tracks. I watched as an image of a house widened and vibrated. Blues, greens, yellows and reds streaked, dripped, and ran down the screen to the beat of eerie noises. Symbols of death and ghastly apparitions faded in and out of view. There was no living human presence in the pictures, only ghosts. The house seemed to be filled with unrest and undying hatred. I wanted to sympathize with the tortured feeling, the need to explode, but I couldn't. There were no words - only sounds, colors, and that house.
I walked toward the name placard. It read: "Jeremy Blake, Winchester, 2001-2002", followed by a short description.
The "Winchester House" is in San Jose, California. Construction on the house began in the year 1884. Sarah Winchester, the widow of the rifle maker, added rooms until her death in 1922. She was convinced that the rifle's victims were haunting her. To confuse the spirits, she built rooms and stairways continuously. After 38 years of constant construction, there are a total of 160 rooms, 40 staircases (some that lead to nowhere) and 47 fireplaces [www.winchestermysteryhouse.com]. It has become an architectural anomaly and a major tourist attraction.
With its inaccessible rooms and dead-end staircases, the Winchester House was the ideal place for Jeremy Blake to play upon the superstitions of the American people. Blake states that his work is made up of "half-remembered and imaginary architecture, or my fantasies about its fictional designers and occupants" [Blake, qtd by Simpson]. He continues by stating that he hopes that "viewing my work will leave one in a quietly contemplative, but also somewhat disoriented state". I hope that he continues to create works like "Winchester" for a long time because leaving people in a contemplative mood is something he has a knack for.
Jeremy Blake is a digital video artist. Currently he lives in New York City. Blake's video installation simulates the building using computer graphics and sounds. The sounds of construction that were meant to keep the spirits away are the same sounds that draw his viewers in. He uses experiments with "color organs" and "color harmonies" as a way of matching the color to each sound [www.whitney.org]. The purpose of Blake's "Winchester" is to address the way "American culture grieves and mythologizes violence" [Blake, qtd in www.whitney.org]. Sarah Winchester's obsession suggests how a guilty conscience can consume someone's entire life. She allowed herself to live off of the profit made from other people's lives; that is a heavy burden.
Jeremy Blake's "Winchester" is a technological feat and has left a psychological imprint on my mind, completely feeding into my childhood fears of old houses and restless spirits. For many nights, visions of spirits and colors haunted my dormitory room. If I had the opportunity to meet him in person, I would say, Thanks, Jeremy Blake for the sublime experience.
Sources: Jeremy Blake. "Winchester." Whitney biennial 2002 online exhibition. www.whitney.org. April 25,2002.
Bennett Simpson. "Jeremy Blake." PS1 essays. www.ps1.org
© 2002 S. E. Chambers