MOOD AND METAPHOR The setting for We Didn’t Touch the Ground.
Megan and Murray McMillan's videos unfold with dream logic. A man walks up into a bright, heavenly whiteness. A woman climbs into a giant model of her head. A guy slides under a floor. Rooms are filled entirely with lamps or giant lilies. Everything feels deliberate and concrete, but the reasoning behind the astonishing visions is elusive.
In the Pawtucket couple's new video installation, When We Didn't Touch the Ground — the centerpiece of what might be considered their first (mini) retrospective at Brown University's Granoff Center (154 Angell Street, Providence, through May 16) — a man climbs down from stacks of boxed-up furniture in an old mill building, picks up two sandbags, and slowly steps along a row of mirrored pyramids. Reaching the front, he sets the sandbags on a pile already begun there to create a low wall. (A barrier against flooding?) Then he joins a group of people having a dinner party in the left foreground. Meanwhile, a room-sized box, with a woman lying in a hammock inside, is mechanically winched to the ceiling at the back of the room and glides forward. When the box comes to rest just behind the table, the woman gets up, kicks a streamer of fabric down a hole in the box's floor, slides down it like a circus aerialist, and joins the group at the table.
The video projection fills the gallery's end wall. In the room with us are some mirrored pyramids and a row of boxed-up tables, dressers, and cabinets, as if the video's world is merging with our world.
Viewers might want to assemble the elements — stacked furniture, mountaineering, levies, hammocks, acrobatics, dinner party — into a narrative, but the McMillans' videos seem to be more about atmosphere and tableaus. Things don't coalesce; rather, one wondrous, inexplicable thing just happens after another.
"We think of our work having a relationship to dance and also having a relationship to poetry," Murray tells me. "We're interested in mood, metaphor, the kind of economy that poetry works with," Megan says. "We're not interested in direct translation . . . We like associative connections."
The McMillans met and began dating in high school in Dallas. He attended college in Kansas City and Austin; she left for college in Missouri, California, and Boston. They married in 1997, spent five years in Los Angeles (making art as well as blogging about exhibitions), a year in St. Louis, and then moved to Rhode Island in 2007 for work. He now teaches at Roger Williams University; she teaches at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
They've collaborated since 2002, initially on live performances and since 2006 behind cameras shooting videos with as many as a dozen performers, builders, and camera people. Their projects are among the biggest, most ambitious art being made in the region — the scale of things you see regularly in Los Angeles galleries, but rarely here. Their work has flourished in Rhode Island's surplus of large, affordable mill spaces, rented for a month or so at a time. Their videos often have the feel of performances — usually single, brief takes of people doing real things without camera magic.