Border Crossings, June 2009
"For, I ask, what is a man in Nature?" The 17th-century French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal poses this question in a section of his Pensées title "Man's disproportion. He appears in Joshua Mosley's dread as an animated character walking through a forest with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, seemingly searching for an answer. Like Pensées, a collection of writing fragments intended for a large-scale defense of Christianity compiled by friends after Pascal's death, Mosley's dread is an elusive, puzzling work. Installed in a cavernous gallery at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, the animated film in dread chronicles the French philosophers' walk through a dense forest populated by a cow, a beetle and a dog named Dread. In a neighbouring gallery, Mosley cast the animation models of the two philosophers and the animals as miniatures who welcome the visitor into the imagined world of dread and stand as testaments to animation's artifice.
In the film Pascal encounters Rousseau along a cleared path. They converse briefly, their lines printed in white text. While the dialogue in the film is conveyed only via these subtitles (created from scans of letters from the text of a 1941 edition of Pascal's Pensées), the gallery fills with the sounds of Mosley's manic score, the artist's re-imagining of nature's original incidental music.
Rousseau, staring out into the forest, begins the conversation: "It." Pascal replies, Each thing is itself." A disjointed conversation emerges in nine lines. As they both turn and marvel at a view through a clearing, Rousseau concludes, "God ordered all that is." "He is neither here nor good." counters Pascal. Mosley has written that this dialogue is loosely based on his reading of Rousseau's Emile and Pascal's Pensées. The arguments are purely imagined and not directly correlated to the text of either work.
The film ends when the men encounter Dread, a giant dog who attacks and kills Rousseau. Pascal waits back in the brush, apparently unfazed at his companion's death. On the wall label of the bronze sculpture, visitors learn the dog's name, a reference to Dread, the dog depicted in photography and moving-image pioneer Eadweard Muybridge's motion studies. Muybridge created his groundbreaking photographs on the University of Pennsylvania campus not far from the current location of the Institute of Contemporary Art and Mosley's office at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Design, where he is professor of fine arts.
dread, premiered at the 52nd Venice Biennale in 2007, selected by Biennale director Robert Storr for his group show in the Italian pavilion. The pavilion was an inspired stage for dread's exploration of man in nature. It is located in the Giardini Pubblici, a vast municipal park that is home to a population of feral cats and a Garibaldi-crowned fountain full of small turtles, in addition to the international art festival that comes to Venice every two years.
Mosley's experiments in animation have resulted in five films. Lindbergh, and the Trans-Rational Boy, created in 1997 while he was still an MFA student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, introduces themes that appear again in dread. Lindbergh features a live-action child actor in a computer generated world. He floats on a small boat in the ocean and speaks to the running mice that power the boat in an invented language that becomes understandable only with the aid of English subtitles. The animation ends with Charles Lindbergh flying overhead and the boy demanding that the mice "get moving. . . . Please! Run Run."
In A Vue, an installation Mosley completed in 2004, a bronze statue of George Washington Carver, accompanies a short animation featuring stop-motion figures in hand-drawn environments. Henry, a park ranger who cleans a 150-foot-tall statue of George Washington Carver, is first seen at work and then cooking at home. The sparse animation outlines his short-lived relationship with a woman named Susan who works at a fibre optics factory. Like the Transrational Boy's, Henry and Susan's ability to communicate is dangerously limited. They primarily express themselves by speaking about and through their work. In a conversation in which Susan seems to be opening up to Henry, she explains, "Before photonics, we did not anticipate the ability to communicate at the speed of light." The conversation between Rousseau and Pascal in dread is similarly disjointed because the philosophers only express themselves in brief, cryptic aphorisms. (Pascal: "Each piece is its own causes.")
Like Thomas Eakins's instructive painting of the Gross Clinic in Philadelphia, Mosley's animations are pieces of art as well as didactic lessons. He explores new animation technology and techniques in each production and carefully documents the process on his website. To animate dread, he took 20 to 30 digital scans of rubber molds made from the original clay and resin sculptures. He then virtually reassembled the figures for computer modelling. Leaving the figures unpainted so that the careful scanning conveys every handmade impression on their original clay surface, he seems to revel in basic illusion at the heart of animation. dread takes place in a mountainous, wooded landscape with all its colour washed out. The grey animated figures are set against a background of quivering leaves and branches that seem to dance in the wind. He created the effect by irregularly looping a series of photographs taken within 10 seconds of one another.
Joshua Mosley has spent his academic and artistic career trying to figure out ways to simulate life through the optical illusion that enables animation. Like all animators, he studies nature endlessly, trying to reproduce its miniscule details. In the world of dread, he is the creator, and like computer programmers who design the physics engine of games, he is responsible for its simulated reality. An open-ended meditation on mimesis in art, dread is for those who, as TS Eliot wrote of Pascal's Pensées, "have the mind to conceive and the sensitivity to feel, the disorder, the futility, the meaninglessness, the mystery of life and suffering, and who can only find peach through a satisfaction of the whole being."
Joshua Mosley's dread was exhibited at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia from January 16 to March 29, 2009.
Alexander B. Kauffman has worked at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and Harper's Magazine. He contributed a catalogue essay for Patrick Lundeen's "Blue Yodeler" exhibition at Wetterling Gallery in Stockholm.