In his upcoming exhibition Awake in the City Gallery at Waterfront Park, artist John Duckworth wants to make you squirm. He wants to make you wiggle. He wants to take you out of your comfort zone, overload you with images and sounds, and he wants you to take it all in while remaining silent.
It sounds like a tall order for an underutilized gallery, but Duckworth isn't worried. The show is an experiment, after all. Can he expect visitors to walk in silence through eight sequential galleries that are consciously designed to first over-stimulate and then soothe a visitor's soul?
"It is an experiment," says Duckworth with a laugh while explaining his vision. Upon arrival to the City Gallery, visitors will be handed wireless headsets — the same kind used in silent discos, museums, and places where noise ordinances demand quiet. Visitors will then enter a video room where, on opening night and for four hours a day throughout the duration of the exhibition, John will sit in silent meditation as a video is projected over and around him. The video, 12 minutes of rapidly changing footage, will be accompanied by equally fast-paced and layered music on the first of the three headphone channels. "I wanted to find a way to knock people over the head on their way into the exhibition. To change their mind-state to something more receptive. Bam, it's a wake-up call right in the beginning, and hopefully it'll get you away from your to-do list and make you realize, 'Oh wow, this is happening right now,'" he says.
From there, as visitors move through the different rooms, they will find paintings of Buddha in his many forms, both benevolent and wrathful. But there's more to the images than just this god. "If you get in close, there's a lot of dark Western imagery as well," Duckworth says. "For example, there's an image of police officers holding someone back who was getting ready to jump off a bridge. It's beautiful and terrible. That's the type of thing you can find in these pieces. But when you pull back, there's a certain visual cohesion that's hopefully more contemplative. It's not heavy, not dark. It's not either."
The music created for this portion of the exhibition is similarly designed to bring various sounds and instruments together making a single, cohesive soundtrack. Jazz drummer and composer Quentin Baxter wrote and performed a piece, as did guitarist Lee Barbour and singer-songwriter Duncan Sheik. The pieces, all inspired by the artwork, are on rotation in a loop.
The barrage of sight and sound mimics our lives today, according to Duckworth. "I've noticed that everyone I know, if you get down to it, has this low-level anxiety all the time," the artist says. "It's a low-level buzz. The economy sucks, the environment's going to shit, politics is terrible, my job is too busy. This all leads to this low-level hum of stress and anxiety. We have a constant bombardment of visual input in these modern times. Even just walking down the cereal aisle in a grocery store is overwhelming."
That panic-inducing thrum is something that's not likely to change, but Duckworth hopes to help gallery visitors think about the hum in a different way. "It's like the Buddha," Duckworth says. "Everyone has the potential for both sides: benevolent or wrathful. We all have the potential to do horrific things on small or grand levels. Once you understand that, you can start to forgive your mistakes, and also others, based on a cultivation of patience and compassion."
This convergence of Eastern philosophy and Western life drives not just Awake, but also Duckworth's life. When a divorce left him "flattened," he says, turning to Eastern philosophies changed everything. Now he's a committed student of yoga and meditation, and spends long hours cycling alone with his camera capturing the changing beauty of the marshes on Johns Island. "The world is full of challenging, sometimes horrific, terrible things. There's no avoiding it. The only thing you can do is change your relationship to it," he says.
And as visitors progress throughout the galleries in the Awake exhibition, Duckworth hopes they experience similar feelings of acceptance — of calm in the face of chaos. In the final space, the Lounge, there are couches for relaxation and decompression. Videos will again play on the walls, but these films are soothing: five-minute clips of clouds on one wall and water on the other. The audio clips for this room are quieter piano music, designed to stimulate contemplation. It's an area to regroup, to process the Awake experience silently and in your own way.
"My hope is that coming to Awake will be more like going to a show or performance. Like going to Broadway," Duckworth says.
"It has a beginning and an end, and it's something where you experience it, think about it, and then hopefully you go somewhere else to talk about it."
Duckworth hopes for silence in the galleries. He hopes for thoughtful respect for what he's trying to share. But most of all, he hopes people will think. "In the end, it's all about finding an inner balance in a chaotic world. I hope people can find that at Awake."