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Secret Stories Of Faith And Fear: 'The Latest Sun Is Sinking Fast'

By Joel Wicklund in Arts & Entertainment on Jan 28, 2015 4:40PM

"Nanty II" (2015) in "The Latest Sun Is Sinking Fast" by Melika Bass.

Mysterious and unsettling, The Latest Sun Is Sinking Fast is a truly enveloping media experience. Forget about IMAX 3-D or moving D-BOX seats; if you really want to get lost in a cinematic creation, just walk around Melika Bass' new film installation at the Hyde Park Art Center. Just don't expect vibrant sensory kicks. Quiet, concentrated and discomforting, this is more of a sensory haunting.

The installation deserves to be seen by many, yet I have to say I benefited from having the gallery all to myself when I attended. It only emphasized the studied, solitary and more than slightly spooky aspects of the experience. The four-screen installation features four different short films, including a modified version of an earlier Bass short, Nanty, whose central character reappears in another film. How the other two films in the piece (featuring two additional characters) relate to the Nanty films, or to each other, is left to the viewer to decide.

Even with this ambiguity, The Latest Sun Is Sinking Fast is an easy step into the experimental realm for those who mainly watch narrative movies, as it invites you to invent your own storyline. It's not that the combined films create a puzzle to piece together exactly, but watching these isolated characters and their highly ritualized behavior, it's hard not to speculate on some sort of background for each of them.

The installation is designed so one screen is distinctly separated from the rest, while the other three can be viewed from the same vantage point, though seats are placed so you can also focus on each film separately. I was compelled to watch the films cycle through three times, sometimes concentrating on one at a time, sometimes taking different positions in the gallery to alternate between the imagery.

Different viewers are sure to have different interpretations, but my reading of the intersection of these lone figures added up to something very troubling...possibly sinister. One character prepares and delivers a sermon, but we also see him in his woodshop, staining what appear to be doorstops, though the assemblage of pointy-edged objects almost suggests weaponry. Another man sits in a car, taking off his watch as he listens (maybe) to one of the woodshop man's recorded speeches, looking both anxious and lost as he glances out the vehicle's windows.

Nanty I, 2013/2015, Melika Bass
And then there is the young woman from the Nanty films. Watch her on one screen and she seems to be living an almost feral existence in hiding ... from what? On the other screen, she enters a seemingly empty church—dirty and disheveled—and washes herself in a bathroom sink before donning a choir gown to sing a hymn to the vacant pews. Her eyes dart nervously around the church upon finishing the performance.

Religious rituals also played a significant part in Bass' short feature Shoals (2011), which the filmmaker aptly describes as "a prairie grotesque." While also not a conventional narrative, Shoals definitely painted the portrait of a cult, and it's hard not to feel some carryover of that theme in this new work, though nothing is concrete in that regard. Scenarios of abduction and escape played in my head, but one could also easily see each film as simply a moment of extreme loneliness or a grasping for spiritual guidance.

Bass has been getting attention in experimental film circles for several years now, with showings of her work around the world. A solo exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in 2011 and a film commissioned by the band Sigur Rós raised her profile. We were co-workers years ago at Facets Multimedia, but until Shoals I had not seen any of her work. That film immediately impressed me with its distinctive, expressive visual composition.

The Latest Sun Is Sinking Fast reaffirms that talent, while also exploring sonic elements to a greater degree. Sounds from each film overlap at times and drop off at others, adding to the temporal enigma on the screens. The hymn and the sermons also contrast in tone, with the singing (and the edgy performance of actress Sarah Stambaugh) seeming to stem from a world of insecurities, while the sermons are read with a cold, remote kind of confidence.

Bass has plans to expand upon the unnerving world and characters of The Latest Sun Is Sinking Fast in future installations and stand-alone films. It should be fascinating to see where she goes next with it all...and if there is a light at the end of this troubling tunnel.

The Latest Sun Is Sinking Fast is on exhibition in the Kanter-McCormick Gallery at the Hyde Park Art Center through April 19. Bass will appear to talk about the installation on Sunday, March 15 from 2-4 p.m., and her 2008 film, Songs from the Shed will also be shown at that time.