Yann Novak, now 30 years old and a native of Madison, Wisconsin, lived in Seattle for eight years. Here is where he came of age, where he worked in a coffee shop near the art museum that never showed his work, and where he went home to his building of artist lofts, to his community of collaborators and commiserators. Last November, after falling in love with a Californian and finding himself finished with rainy winters, he moved to Los Angeles. It’s impossible not to note the irony in the fact that this highly emotional relocation turns out to be the subject of Novak’s first big solo show in Seattle—that his coming out is the same as his moving out. But Relocation, as the show is called, tells a larger story, too, about all kinds of movings on, from any position of relative comfort into a newness, and the way the process itself changes the terms you thought you understood about each location when you made the decision. The place you decided to leave is better than ever; along the way, you keep reading the landscape for clues that won’t matter anyway; and arriving is not arriving but starting something from a weird and awkward distance away from where you’ll eventually locate yourself. (Do you ever have this experience, where your mind roams back to the way you saw your apartment for the first time? That’ll be your last view, too.)
Novak does not waste his chance to make a first impression. In fact, with remarkable economy he transforms the three rooms he’s been given to work with into chambers where you can be transported into states of mind that feel both personal and familiar. Using digitally altered field recordings (in which the sounds are heightened but the time is real) and snapshots digitally stitched together and abstracted into gleaming videos, Novak both fills the work up with his subjective experience and empties it out to make room for you. There’s just enough specificity and just enough blankness.
I know, technically, how Novak made this work, but I don’t quite know how it works. The closest I can get to describing his approach is that it’s a combination of generosity and restraint. Each detail being so firmly in place means that the rest is open. For instance, the first work you come across, Relocation: Vacant, at first seems like a simple sound installation with no visual content. One small speaker hangs in each corner of the white cube, and a larger subwoofer sits on the floor next to an amplifier and a DVD player (used to send the sound to the four speakers, as in a home entertainment system) in front of a bench. But then you begin to notice the cords coiled in the corners under the speakers rather than hidden in the walls, as if they’re the last things to be packed up, and the preposterous way the DVD player and amplifier have each been set on custom-built white pedestals to make them the same height as the subwoofer, which is all the same height and length as the bench across the room. The space is in a careful and anxious state—done up as much as undone—as if you’d walked in on the briefly unmade bed of a very neat person. It is a reinterpretation of the situation in which the recording was made, the night before Novak left, when all that was left was a mattress, a refrigerator, and a recorder sitting on the floor, turned on while Novak went out to get dinner. The place was empty, but it was as full for Novak (of memories) as it was going to get.
Relocation: Mobile is in the hallway between two rooms, mimicking the U-Haul trip that’s represented abstractly on a large video projection made of photographs Novak took out the window on the straight shot down I-5, and in two sets of headphones that isolate two viewers as if they were each passengers. Waves of blurry color, waves of zooming sound—you’re moving between points at all times, riding the emotional ground. It is never visually obvious whether you’re seeing out the front or the side windows of the truck, as horizon lines and views always shift into some other form just as they seem about to come into focus. It’s not just that your perspective changes, it’s that your axis of perspective is in flux, from forward-back to side-to-side.
To find out what happens when Novak finally arrives, you enter a black-box space through black curtains for Relocation: Dislocation. I won’t tell you too much, except that the video is made of three photographs taken out the southern-exposure roll-up door on his new loft home (shared with his partner, artist Robert Crouch, who cocurated the group show in the front gallery at Lawrimore Project). The sound is from the same location. There’s a sparkle, rhythm, and lack of clarity to the newness—and in fact, the camera is shooting through corrugated plastic. The glittering white of the projection—a transformation of the now-dull-seeming white (Seattle) walls of Relocation: Vacant in the other room—is blinding.