Eclipse (2006–08) by Demetrius Oliver (U.S., born 1975) is a work consisting of sixteen individually framed photographs hung in a grid. Each image captures a jet of steam hitting the top of the artists head. Oliver creates a visual and conceptual link between otherworldly astrological events and everyday actions that he sets up in his studio. This pairing down of complex scientific ideas is not a direct attempt at simplification but rather a way to create room for interpretation and contemplation.
Below is the featured commentary by University of Washington faculty that accompanies the installation.
Celestial Order and Earthly Disorder
— Woodruff T. Sullivan, III, Professor Emeritus, Department of Astronomy
What can an astronomer make of this sequence of photographs, whose title refers to a well-known celestial phenomenon? Is it a solar eclipse, where the dark moon slowly covers and uncovers the sun; or perhaps a lunar eclipse, where the shadow of the Earth moves across a full moon, obscuring it for an hour or two? Is there any kind of ordering, any progression to the sequence? Would it matter if the sixteen photos were rotated as a group, or rotated individually? And what is that enigmatic white “jet,” so unlike anything experienced or photographed in eclipses?
To start to understand this set of photographs, I've had to discard my scientific sensibilities and abandon any effort to see the usual time sequence during an eclipse, or images more than loosely suggesting an eclipsed sun or moon. Do we perhaps have a play on celestial bodies vis-à-vis human bodies? Might the lack of any apparent order or progression in successive images be Oliver's deliberate commentary on the dysfunction of early twenty-first-century society, wholly unlike an exquisitely predictable eclipse event? Might the title then refer to the tendency to dismiss black bodies and the willingness to ignore racial issues in contemporary American culture?
Subject and Object: Seeing (Double) Through the Body
— Andrea Woody, Associate Professor, Department of Philosophy
From a distance, the formal elements of Demetrius Oliver’s are striking. The grid of black-and-white photographs evokes the cool, detached perspective of scientific data, the images organized and ready for analysis. The arrangement cannot help but appear deliberate, sending the viewer on a journey to discover the organizing principle that would reveal a narrative. But the logic behind this order—like the story behind the images—remains elusive. On closer view, sharp geometry is replaced by the rich texture and variation of the central object, recognized as a human head. Yet the overarching narrative is no less mysterious from this new perspective.
Centuries ago, the French philosopher René Descartes articulated a philosophical position known as dualism, maintaining that immaterial mind and physical body occupied distinct realms of existence. Oliver’s work juxtaposes the mind’s desire to grasp the nature of our world with the visceral reality of a body embedded in it, revealing a further dualism of objectivity and subjectivity, highlighted in the implicit, but significant, language of black and white. Dualisms work through contrast, by postulating and presupposing difference. Eclipse wrestles with such assumptions as the object of scientific scrutiny and the subject striving to know come together. At the same time, this physical body–a black man’s body–cannot help but be a social body; its “otherness” part of yet another dualism of the world the artist inhabits.