Jeremy Blake: Winchester trilogy
First post in a series about the installations that are in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art's Project Los Altos program
The Winchester trilogy is a series of three video installations revolving around San Jose's iconic Winchester Mystery House. The famous mansion was created in the late 19th and early 20th century by a wealthy woman who believed that the ghosts of those killed by the Winchester rifle were after her. A medium told Sarah Winchester that as long as she kept building, the spirits would be appeased, and so construction went on non-stop for nearly forty years.
The first video in the series, 2002's Winchester marries archival footage and photos of the house with abstract, painterly animation and a haunting soundtrack to offer a psychological tour of the mind of the mansion's creator. The still image above is from this video installation.
A year later, Jeremy Blake followed up with 1906, which focuses more on the physical properties of the mansion. Footage of the mansion's interior highlights staircases to nowhere and the remains of a doomed wing that collapsed in the 1906 earthquake. While Winchester is relatively static, 1906 moves throughout the house and walks around its exterior. It highlights destruction and the mansion's deterioration.
The final video in the installation, 2004's Century 21, is a little different. It looks at the Winchester Mystery House's proximity to a group of movie theaters domes, which were built next door to the mansion in the 1960s. This juxtaposition is all the more relevant today, because the Century 21 theaters are currently at the heart of a debate in San Jose about whether the buildings should be preserved for their historic status or bulldozed to make room for new development. Blake never intended this connection, but it's an interesting one. He was interested in the relationship created by the Winchester rifle and its role in the shaping of the American West, and how that era became translated by Hollywood into movies and films.
The three installations play in a continuous loop. There is no narration, but each video has its own soundtrack that mingles and mixes with the other two screens and their images. Each video is cut to a different length, so even if a viewer watch them all the way through several times he or she will not see or hear the same combination twice.
Shown on large screens that fill an entire room, the film's endless permutations are hypnotic, and I could watch them all day. It has a fluid, dreamlike quality that sucks you in, and the lack of narration lets your mind wander, focusing on whatever strikes your fancy: the colors, the melting images that fade into each other, the strange music that isn't quite musical. After visitors have gone in to view the installation, we'll often ask them what they thought. Nine times out of ten, they'll answer "Interesting". It's like they're still processing everything they saw, and until that's been done they really don't know what to say. Certainly, that's how I felt the first time I saw the videos, and even now that I've watched them several times I'm still stuck when I try to explain them to others. I love the Winchester trilogy, because it's creepy and beautiful and familiar and foreign, but it's really hard to describe if you haven't seen it.