The First Art Newspaper on the Net    Established in 1996 Thursday, December 9, 2021


signs and symbols launches online-only presentations of video works by its artists
Jen DeNike, Queen of Narwhals. Film still.



NEW YORK, NY.- signs and symbols is presenting Queen of Narwhals, a video exhibition by Jen DeNike. This marks the launch of the gallery's new series of online-only solo presentations of video works by its artists.

Water is the source of power in Jen DeNike’s Queen of Narwhals, a short film populated by a cult of matriarchal women. A gang of children navigate a video game in search of a mysterious narwhal, meanwhile through the remote magic of an elder, a young woman undergoes a shape shifting enchantment morphing from human to narwhal. Shot in the real-life wasteland of the Salton Sea, California, Queen of Narwhals hints at the dark undertones of our current impending environmental catastrophe in parallel with our universal quest for hope in her immersive cinematic fairytale.

DeNike writes: “In 2017, I was commissioned to make a new video work for the Bombay Beach Biennale, an incubator for artists in a small town on the Salton Sea, California. This tiny town once thriving in the 1950’s as a fishing enclave and water ski destination, has since undergone massive destruction. After multiple floods since the mid 60’s, buildings sit abandoned, objects lay exactly as they were left half a century ago. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to its visitors and inhabitants, irrigation ditches from nearby farms channeled toxins into the Salton Sea for many years since its inception in 1905. The Salton Sea mud contains enough arsenic and selenium to qualify for a disposal dump reserved for the most toxic of waste. By the early 2000’s, the lake was headed for disaster, the air permeated with the smell of rotting fish lining the beaches, it’s small-scattered villages, becoming ghost towns, sinking into its 235 feet below sea level depths. A few people remained, old timers, a handful of families, a collection of stragglers, regardless of the environment it was their home and they wanted to stay.

“It was with curiosity and trepidation that I stepped onto her shores to location scout, to feel the space, to see what I could do there, an external and internal navigation of sorts. During my initial visit I met some locals who welcomed me in, with their stories, and love of this broken place they called home. My Airbnb host - a retired prostitute, moved to Bombay Beach from Mexico over forty years ago, she was the acting unofficial mayor of the town. I stayed at one of her trailers covered in leopard print, while roaming the dusty streets on multiple trips. I grew to know the town, it’s people, and its struggles, till I felt almost one of them welcomed at the Ski Inn bar as a local. During the course of my time there, fourteen people died (of old age) from the 295 population. We saw a German documentary film crew pass through, several fashion shoots, and a blockbuster zombie film shooting on location. I mean, we were sitting in the epicenter of the apocalypse; at least what Hollywood considered its backdrop, except it was real.

“One of the abandoned houses everyone called the windmill house, it’s child-like pastel windmill precariously perched atop, seemed to call to me. Climbing the chain link fence, I went in through its crumbling back door. I had heard from the town bartender, that a husband and wife and their teenage daughter had lived there, one day they just up and left. The parent’s bed still had the sheets on, while a moldy coffee mug sat on the nightstand. The upstairs bedroom, clearly their daughter’s hangout, held two twin 70’s style beds with matching covers. I tripped over plastic flowers everywhere, a creepy clown painting glared at me from the bathroom, as I wondered what teenage fantasies she dreamt of in that isolated bedroom. Downstairs an obsessive collection of Christmas plates in the kitchen, oddly the only silverware I found in the house were spoons, hundreds of spoons. I started spending quite a bit of time inside the house, rearranging and cataloging their personal objects, trying to make sense of the lives that lived there, which I guess in my mind represented all the people who once did in this area. One day as I was leaving the house, a local kid ran up to me. He said: “my grand-dad said yer some kind of sorceress, we don’t know what yer doing in there, but maybe you can use these.” He then handed me two hawk feet bound with silver wire around the ankles, and ran off. I wasn’t altogether sure myself what I was doing there, more than anything I was affected by how we all navigate those cracks of remembered experience, even when they are not our own, what remains in the memory of a place after an event of devastation or trauma, and what hope lives in that invisible.”

A meditation on hope, Queen of Narwhals finds its light in the invisible undergrowth of the times we are living in today. During a period of uncertainty and despair, its message is ever more relevant where we are reminded that hope is not a guarantee for tomorrow but a sparker of energy for today. In her inimitable and inspiring way, DeNike provides fuel and fire as she reminds us that despite the unpredictable path ahead, we must not lose hopefulness of the fact that profound transformation is possible. An impending apocalypse is always easier to imagine than what actually comes next. In DeNike’s version, who survives are women and children.










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