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Into the Mystic

[whitespace] artwork Fountain of Contemplation: Mystic texts adorn the walls of Seyed Alvari's installations.

Seyed Alavi tries to see the unseeable in 'Canticles of Ecstasy' installations

By Ann Elliott Sherman

CONCEPTUALIZING ecstasy--the state of being overcome by intense emotion, not the drug--sounds oxymoronic enough. Critiquing a show that conceptualizes ecstasy might reach sufficiently absurd levels of intellectualized removal from simple experience to become the premise for a Monty Python reunion skit.

To be fair, just about any formalized translation of mystical communion not originating in the experience itself is bound to seem like a metaphor squared. Despite its theme, installation artist Seyed Alavi's new show, Canticles of Ecstasy, is not intended to trigger an approximation of rapturous transport but rather tranquil contemplation of the ecstatic experience. The beauty of these pieces is more akin to a high-level chess game: cleverly conceived and smoothly accomplished with the greatest possible economy.

Seeking inspiration from the site, Alavi began to research the namesake of the university the de Saisset Museum calls home, Saint Clare. This led him to her mentor, St. Francis of Assisi, and on to other mystics.

This background research coalesced with Alavi's own interest in Sufi mysticism, his Iranian heritage and the museum architecture. The combination works most effectively in the foyer installation: Searching. The two-story walls are completely covered with outsized Farsi script quoting from a poem by an anonymous 14th-century Sufi. Even before one turns toward the stairway to find the translation framed in projected light, the watery drips running from each letter convey an urgency bordering on obsession.

The calm lavender-blue color of the paint, however, disconnects any possible Gothic associations we might make with dripping messages. Instead the blue ties in with the words themselves: "There is water in the well, / yet / we wander about / complaining of thirst ..." A tiered fountain in the middle of the foyer visually anchors the piece--enjoyable for the sound but bordering on the painfully literal.

THE INTRODUCTORY installation hooks up nicely with its companion piece, Discovery. Looking up to the mezzanine from the foyer entrance, visitors see a silver-framed mirror on the solid blue wall. The mirror is angled downward to reflect a photo image of blue ocean. Once upstairs to get a closer look, they find the source: a poster whose image of waves serves as a background for metaphysical text regarding the beginning and ending of all things in a drop of sea water. (The poster has been reproduced and placed in a stack so that viewers may take one away with them.)

The words, initially faint, are printed over and over, mimicking insight by gaining clarity with each repetition. A glance into the mirror now yields the viewer's own reflection, shorthand for his or her own congruence with a single drop in the vast ocean of life.

As a Man Ray fan, I appreciated the idea behind the installation titled Longing: 2,000 glistening handblown glass tears pasted on a pale cerulean wall with no frame of reference.

Unfortunately, these "tears" could just as easily have been raindrops or beads of sweat. And though the accompanying placard for Longing explains that the centrally staged 18th-century refectory table is intended to connote being reunited with loved ones to share sustenance, the image of silent monks eating in a drafty monastery was hard to shake.

The table is draped with muslin, into which Alavi has burned a passionate prayer by a 14th-century German mystic, Mechthild of Magdeburg. Although the singed words do provide an apt visual translation for her burning desire to be reunited with her beloved Lord, once they are transformed into table linen, they fall flat.

Awakening is Alavi's take on Plato's cave, the prison realm of shadowy images whose meanings are whatever those in power declare them to be. Only the liberated can come to know the difference between the agreed-upon perceptions of reality and actual truth.

In the installation, awakening comes and goes, symbolized by a single light bulb hung at heart level that brightens and dims with every deep breath. Periodic chain-reaction illumination of the other bulbs randomly suspended throughout the dark room allows the viewer to briefly see that the shadows are camouflagelike painting on the walls.

What is lacking in this visual Cliff Notes is any kind of impetus for knowing--or any acknowledgment of the toll knowledge exacts. Watching the lights flicker is at best hypnotic fun that induces a shrug on exit.

The last installation celebrates Union. Looping back to earlier water imagery, Alavi has fastened 20,000 aqua Post-Its to the four walls in overlapping rows that rise and fall like sculpted marine swells. Each paper bears computer-generated inscriptions from various mystic poets' paeans to connection. Even the lettering embraces the theme, programmed to make lowercase letters resemble Alavi's script, capital letters to copy his wife's baroque flourishes. With no coherence in the text's arrangement, ultimately the message is that even the mystical union between two souls is but a drop in the ocean.

Canticles of Ecstasy runs through Dec. 18 at the de Saisset Museum, Santa Clara University, 500 El Camino Real, Santa Clara. (408/554-4528)

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From the October 29-November 4, 1998 issue of Metro.

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