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Fan Mail: Sarah O’Donnell

In Sarah O’Donnell’s work, cinema, the diorama, and immersive installation come together to give shape to her fascination with and investigation of human memory. O’Donnell is specifically interested in the places and characters through which memories are made. She often re-creates memories through her own ever-evolving methods of mise-en-scène and editing. In this way, her works all seem to reside somewhere between explaining and further complicating the processes and results of film making and memory production.

Sarah O’Donnell. The Light is the Source of the Land, 2011; Panoramic photograph printed on 5 x 65 in., transparency, high powered flashlight, 2 rpm motor, Styrofoam rocks, fog; dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artist.

Sarah O’Donnell. The Light is the Source of the Land, 2011; Panoramic photograph printed on 5 x 65 in., transparency, high powered flashlight, 2 rpm motor, Styrofoam rocks, fog; dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist

The artist describes her work, broadly, as “ideas about place, memory, home and how we come to know ourselves and our world through our experiences, both firsthand in real life, and secondhand through things like movies, theater, and storytelling. My work occupies that fine line between fiction and reality. Is it a memory from my own childhood, or am I just recalling a scene from a movie?” What may be most important in this is the idea that memories can be artificial or even superimposed by a film or, in her case, an artwork. Is there a distinction between memories from firsthand experience and those accumulated through a stream of life-imitating media forms?

Sarah O’Donnell. Ghost Town Installation, 2012; Silk Organza, pvc pipes, digital prints on paper, digital prints on transparency, high powered flashlights, microphone stands, foam-core; 15 x 15 ft. Courtesy of the artist.

Sarah O’Donnell. Ghost Town Installation, 2012; silk organza, PVC pipes, digital prints on paper, digital prints on transparency, high-powered flashlights, microphone stands, foam-core; 15 x 15 ft. Courtesy the artist

Her practice vacillates between immersive installation and video and a combination of the two. In works such as The Light is the Source of the Land (2011) and Ghost Town Installation (2012), she explores a combination of pure staging, or set building, and image- and light-based visual activation—often through projection(s). The Light is the Source of the Land is an installation including a panoramic photograph of the Nova Scotia landscape printed on a looped transparency, which is then projected onto the walls of the room as the light from a high-powered flashlight shines through the transparency. As it shines through the transparency, revealing other parts of the image, the flashlight rotates in a smooth arc reminiscent of a lighthouse beacon. The center of the room is filled with a three-dimensional installation of Styrofoam rocks, shrouded in an eerie sheet of manufactured fog.

Sarah O’Donnell. Overlook Hotel/ Timberline Lodge, 2009; Large-scale architectural model, LCD screen inside model; 8 x 4.5 x 20 ft. Courtesy of the artist.

Sarah O’Donnell. Overlook Hotel/ Timberline Lodge, 2009; Large-scale architectural model, LCD screen inside model; 8 x 4.5 x 20 ft. Courtesy the artist

The staging and light projection for Ghost Town Installation is equally if not more intricate, but the work takes on another layer. The artist has constructed two miniature buildings that make up the ghost town of the title. However, the facades of the dollhouse-like cabins are made of photographs overlaid onto the cabin-shaped superstructure. Instead of building a micro-replica of a place, O’Donnell mirrors the filmic process of optically flattening characters and places, which in turn is used to create faux memories or to reenact actual ones, a difference O’Donnell is striving to define. When asked about her interest in spaces, she said, “My attraction to a lot of spaces, such as the Montana Ghost Town, is due to the narratives that I feel are embedded in those places. It’s like walking into a building and being able to very clearly visualize what it would have looked like, sounded like, and felt like decades, even centuries, ago. I think that is where the more cinematic influences show through as well. Places feed me a narrative, and I visualize them based on how films are shot and structured, which in turn feeds back into the work.”

Sarah O’Donnell. School Days, 2009; Video still, digital short; 1:00 min. Courtesy of the artist.

Sarah O’Donnell. School Days, 2009; Video still, digital short; 1 min. Courtesy the artist

Another work, Overlook Hotel/Timberline Lodge (2009) takes her notion of using stylistic tropes as a form for investigating memory a step further. The artist painstakingly re-created a model of the hotel from Stanley Kubrick’s film The Shining. Within the spaces of the model O’Donnell set up four DVD projections of cinematic moments from the film, in the spaces in which they took place, inside of the hotel. Whereas in Ghost Town Installation the artist projected outwards, here she projects inwards onto the interiors of a notoriously psychological film.

Sarah O’Donnell. A Visible Night, 2013; Exterior image of site specific installation at abandoned Moran energy plant, Burlington, VT, colored silks, rotating LED light, light board; dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artist.

Sarah O’Donnell. A Visible Night, 2013; Exterior image of site specific installation at abandoned Moran energy plant, Burlington, VT, colored silks, rotating LED light, light board; dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artist.

On top of all of her retelling of other films, places, and characters, O’Donnell does create characters and situations of her own that play out in a few short yet narrative-based videos, the most striking of which is titled School Days (2009). In this one-minute video, a mother and daughter trudge through the snow during what appears to be nothing but another day at school for the girl. However the video takes an eerie turn as the girl leaves her mother, with complete behavioral normalcy, to enter a dark and isolated barn.

Sarah O’Donnell. A Visible Night, 2013; Interior image of site specific installation at abandoned Moran energy plant, Burlington, VT, colored silks, rotating LED light, light board; dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artist.

Sarah O’Donnell. A Visible Night, 2013; Interior image of site specific installation at abandoned Moran energy plant, Burlington, VT, colored silks, rotating LED light, light board; dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artist.

Most recently, O’Donnell completed a large-scale light installation in an abandoned building in Burlington, Vermont. She transformed a series of windows atop the building by adding colored filters and shining a large light back and forth through them to create the illusion of a moving and changing abstract image.  Best seen at night, A Visible Night (2013) extends into new territory for the artist and begs the question: is she moving into full-scale cinematic memory production with new sites and characters?

Sarah O’Donnell lives and works in Burlington, Vermont, and Philadelphia. She earned her BFA at the Tyler School of Art, in Philadelphia, and her MFA at the Ohio State University. O’Donnell has worked in the film industry as an art director and production designer. Her work has been shown in Burlington; Columbus, Ohio; Philadelphia; Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; and Baltimore. 

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