by Ellena Basada
Peter Simensky has a longstanding obsession with gold. His 2015 project Surface Contents 1 & 2 uses 14 karat gold in a series of materials and actions that are meant to exploit gold as a literal marker of value and influence. Simensky’s latest project unearth is a continuation of his critical dialogue around gold’s influence in American history and culture. Inspired by a collection of old photographs published in the Sandy Gazette of ill-fated mining expeditions in the Oregon wilderness, Simensky aims to recreate gold’s seductive yet deceiving allure. Miners in this region were drawn into the depths of the earth by glimmering flecks on stone’s surfaces. Years of intensive labor and even death only exploited these miners’ lives and resources—as the mineral they chased was not gold but pyrite, also known as ‘fool’s gold.’
PICA’s black box theater doubles as a cave-like mirage, in which Simensky creates an abstracted simulation of the desire and loss that haunts the unearthed mining archive. Two large screens play video captured by Simensky’s collaborator Rubén García Marrufo, portraying manipulated clouds of gold glitter comprised of pyrite dust caught in the light rays that stream down from holes in a cavern’s ceiling. The footage suggests the manipulation of air, as the clouds of fool’s gold morph and swirl inorganically. Marrufo’s filming objectifies the spectral, documenting the shimmering clouds as something more sinister than fleeting. Accompanying the ephemera on screen, Jesse Mejía formulates live ambient sounds that resemble the sounds of stone and metal colliding.
A break in the complementary visual and aural display forces the audiences’ eyes upwards to the ceiling of the “cave,” where small reflective stones rotate in spotlight, emulating disco balls. It is unclear whether the stones are handcrafted or organic, which further entrenches the audiences’ sensibilities in both mystery and illusion. Mejía’s pause in sound making leaves the room silent, except for the sound of the machinery behind the rotating disco ball rocks. The mechanical sound in combination with the transitory spectrals of light reflected by the rocks’ surfaces only suggests further a greater system at work beyond the allure of sparkles.
A performance begins at the curtain situated at center stage. Projected onto the curtain is a rock formation illuminated by neon lights: yellow, magenta, deep blue. Dozens of fingers decorated in red glitter gloves emerge from small holes worked into the fabric of the curtain. The fingers dance sensually, evoking phallic imagery, which pairs with the concealment of the performers to produce a glory-hole effect. The evocation of the glory-hole speaks to the lecherous nature of the desire for gold. Also, as glory-holes maintain the anonymity of the participants, Simensky imitates the desire of the miners at the beginning of their journey, when the golden flecks represented an entire body of potential pleasure.
The denouement of unearth is a solo act of two gloved hands that represent the master and orchestrator of the fingers. The two hands, belonging to performance artist Allie Hankins, create a display in front of a microphone, generating ASMR-like sounds as they rub glitter on glitter, forcing shivers to run through people’s spines. Through theatrical movements, the hands evoke laughter. The interactive, response-driven aspect of this last act plays on our own instinctive desire for spectacles. As the show comes to a close, as dance music begins to play and the rocks hanging from the ceiling become actual disco balls, Simensky employs the absurd to reconfigure the cavern into a dancefloor. The reimagining of the space still maintains it as a location for gluttons, but it also obscures the locus of desire with noise. This move suggests that perhaps noise is all there is and that the endeavor to obtain the object of desire will always be a Sisyphean one.
Ellena Basada is a cultural critic, writer, and editor based in Portland. She received her BA in English from Pomona College and is an MA candidate for the Critical Studies program at PNCA. Please email her at ellena.basada[at]gmail[dot]com for questions, comments, or criticism. Find her on Instagram @_ellenanelle_ and Twitter @vaginihilism.