Concepts & Themes
Eventually, everything changes—our physical surroundings and communities, our sense of self, our families and who or what we call home. We constantly negotiate flux, death, decay, growth and rebirth. Laila Voss visualizes environments centered on the concept of cycles. Her themes include the urban environment, language, and the ordinary as the alchemical. She bases her creative practice in between the external, knowable realm and the more elusive, internal sphere. In Voss’s work, archetypes reoccur and meaning changes in accord with audience. Her performance actions, sculptures, video, audio and multi-media installations emphasize and trigger the indeterminacy of meaning—the constant slips and shifts of everyday life.
Throughout her work, Voss delicately combines the inside and outside of a place, person, story or certain point of view by interweaving what we see or hear on the surface with what lies beneath. She explores the changing urban environment as a space where these collaged or aggregate points of view occur with frequency. During the summer of 2010, Voss went scuba diving into the flooded, long-defunct underground passageways of the Veterans Memorial Bridge. The video footage she gathered there served as a direct follow-up to her 2009 installation, Subterranean Resurgence, in which images of the bridge’s architecture were projected on the still surface of a flooded stairwell beneath the Detroit-Superior bridge’s west end. Created for Cleveland’s annual Ingenuity Festival, Subterranean Resurgence was as haunted and claustrophobic as it was ethereal and inviting. As Voss states, the work juxtaposed “the stillness of the [bridge’s] lower level in contrast to the continuous energy expended along the upper level, the river below and the surrounding city.”
Unbounded (2009) likewise yields to a postmodern, schizophrenic sensibility. In it, scenes of building construction and demolition, late night cruises on local highways and spinning centrifugal machines are juxtaposed with the clamor and the occasional quiet that city life offers. The flashing imagery is projected on a hand-made cracked clay tablet—a smooth chalky screen that recreates the look and feel of a parched desert floor. In this work, Voss’s visual narrative capitalizes on the universal suggestion that, civilization—Cleveland proper in these scenes—is ensnared in ongoing cycles of creation and annihilation. Voss’s use of clay as a support reiterates the point; clay is transformative, alchemical, and able to change states. In Unbounded, quick takes of a mechanical claw gnawing the side of a building, returning concrete to dust, are interrupted by long continuous shots of freeway stretch. Voss seems to be saying that, we make modern-day ruins in our continuous urge to move ahead.
Voss engaged the urban environment on an epic scale in a massive, three-part multi-media installation titled A Chaotic Symphony: The Catch-All Net (1996). On view concurrently at the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland (who commissioned the work), the Cleveland Museum of Art, and SPACES gallery, it featured seven hours of original audio/video footage—interviews and ambient city sounds—screening on LCD monitors and resounding from boom boxes or walk-men that were set amidst weeds growing from thirty-gallon industrial drums, recycled glass, and steel scraps. These materials, among others, hung suspended in enormous, hovering nets. In consonance with the title of this 1996 exhibition, Urban Evidence: Contemporary Artists Reveal Cleveland, Voss gave voice to Cleveland’s disparate ethnic, economic and religious groups as well as its rich industrial history and changing landscape. Sculpted more than ten years later, her small-scale Cleveland and Prague Relics present a more subtle and poetic vision of the urban environment. In this series, the artist re-imagines the mundane as mystical. Voss presents rivets from the Veteran’s Memorial Bridge and stones from the streets of Prague, where she held a residency in 2003, as venerable objects preserved beneath delicate, open-frame steel canopies.
Part of her 2003 residency at the Foundation and Center for Contemporary Art (Prague, Czech Republic), Voss’s performance, How Can I Say What I Mean?, and its pendant installation, In the Center, Unable to Hear, Unable to Speak, transformed language lessons into a literal thread that isolated and then connected the artist and her colleagues. In How Can I Say What I Mean?, Voss reinterpreted the divide between inside and outside by inviting six participants to instruct her in six different languages. As she moved from lesson to lesson, she gave each teacher a ball of yellow twine that contained a small cobblestone sculpture at its center. As the participants unwrapped these entombed stones, Voss in turn wrapped their excess twine around a stone she carried. Given as gifts when lessons concluded, these initially hidden cobblestones could be understood as the micro-histories and personal narratives that nourish communal or familial mythologies.
During her residency at the Headlands Center for the Arts (Sausalito, CA) in 2008, Voss created Natural Forces, a work that referenced the collision of ideology and language. The room size installation featured a 28-foot scroll of mulberry paper sloping elegantly through the center of the gallery. On it, Voss painted excerpts and quotations from Western European writings and sacred, indigenous texts of the Miwok people who once populated the area. Voss also covered the windows with gray fabric, incised and patterned with circles of various sizes. The resulting ‘constellations’ transformed sunlight into synthetic starlight suggesting, perhaps, that the concept of translation is incredibly malleable—it affects how we value, see, interpret and react to each other and our surroundings.
Voss, who is of Norwegian and German descent, speaks a spattering of several languages including Norwegian, French, Czech and Korean, where she spent five years of her childhood. Throughout her work, she demonstrates language as a generative link rather than as a barrier by highlighting imperfection, vulnerability, and an outsider’s capacity to connect without always understanding the words per se. In her 2004 performance installation, Chalking, Voss and occasional community participants filled thirteen black slate chalkboards, each approximately 5’ x 4’ in size, with rows of four-inch long white slashes. In the background, a cacophony of fifty-four voices recited monologues of life-changing moments in Russian, English, Japanese and a handful of other languages re-played on five simultaneous tracks. While each slash represented the mark of individuality—a single word or moment—the work’s visual aesthetic, even the fine chalk dust gathered at the bottom of each slate, boasted clean, rhythmic, modernist edge.
In conjunction with her use of language, Voss also employs commonplace objects or substances to signify personal or communal experience. In Studio Artifacts (1993-2002), she enshrined self-described “clutter doomed for the dumpster.” And in At the Water’s Edge (2001), hundreds of sample bags filled with water dangled from ceiling to floor at various heights. Throughout this meditative maze, Voss projected two audio tracks—voices telling stories of self-change offset by sounds of water rushing and dripping—to make clear that we are bound to mistake the precious for the mundane. Water, for example, is essential and ubiquitous; and yet we take it for granted.
Fire and Embers (2001), as well, is made-up of seemingly unexceptional materials. Commissioned by the Akron Art Museum and loaded in meaning, Fire and Embers is a contemplative tribute to Voss’s late parents. It is comprised of doors, bus seats, bookshelves, tire treads, lead, ash, salt, clay, and troughs filled with brine. As if the ordinary were alchemical, Voss uses concrete materials to suggest the lull of infinite memory. Throughout her sculptures, installations and performance actions, Voss conflates that tangibility of our physical world with the intangible realm of one’s ultimately unknowable inner world, be it communal or intimately private. Her corpus of work has an iconography of its own, caught up in an ebb and flow that subsides like the tide and then reappears, extended and distilled.
Indra K. Lacis