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Sasha Wortzel: Dreams of Unknown Islands

Sunday, November 20, 2022 12pm to 5pm

The Douglas F. Cooley Memorial Art Gallery, Reed College, and the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art (PICA) are proud to present the exhibition: Sasha Wortzel, Dreams of Unknown Islands. Wortzel is an artist and filmmaker widely recognized for her elegiac depictions of LGBTQ+ survival, activism, and love. Wortzel uses video, film, installation, sculpture, sound, and performance, to explore how past and present are inextricably linked through resonant spaces and their hauntings. 

Dreams of Unknown Islands transforms the Cooley into an ecological dreamscape in which coastal shores, animal migrations, and the shifting colors of the sky are transmitted through ritual sound, projected film, and a group of functional island sculptures, commissioned for the exhibition. These listening islands invite the visitor to sit or recline, and absorb the images and sounds floating through the museum. This soundscape is the exhibition’s weather—a Meltempi of overlapping voices reciting Kaddish, the Jewish prayer of mourning. The prayer originated c. 30 BCE, written mostly in Aramaic, at the same time as the Lord’s Prayer, written in Koine Greek; its purpose is to comfort the soul of the deceased and reaffirm the faith of the mourner.

Wortzel awakens us to the tenderness and empathy necessary to confront the political and ecological challenges we face today. Through visual poetry and aural invocation, Wortzel offers us the opportunity to feel and reflect upon the nature of mourning—a universal ritual practiced by both humans (and some animals) that has evolved over millennia into a pronouncement of belief, hope, and possibility that does not ignore the suffering we face. Wortzel shows us how the health and flourishing of queer and trans bodies is bound to the health and vibrancy of the natural environment.

In 2018, Wortzel and co-director Tourmaline released the film Happy Birthday Marsha!—an exuberant portrait of transgender rights activist and performer Marsha Johnson, in the hours before the 1969 Stonewall Riots, which Johnson played a critical role in instigating. The film weaves archival footage and fictional narrative to reimagine Johnson’s story on the cusp of this revolutionary moment in history—the birth of the gay liberation movement in the United States. Like Wortzel’s other works, Happy Birthday Marsha! is a tale of sociopolitical consequences, human and animal marginalization, and the myriad of personal and community rituals that celebrate the tenacity and genius of creative autonomy.

Sasha Wortzel, Dreams of Unknown Islands is organized by Stephanie Snyder and Kristan Kennedy for the Douglas F. Cooley Memorial Art Gallery, Reed College, 2022. The exhibition was originally commissioned and presented by Oolite Arts, Miami, Florida, and curated by Kristan Kennedy in 2021.

Based between Miami and New York City, Wortzel’s work specifically attends to sites and stories systematically erased or ignored from these regions’ histories. Wortzel’s films have screened at the Museum of Modern Art’s DocFortnight, True/False Film Festival, BAMcinemaFest, Wexner Center for the Arts, Smithsonian American Art Museum, and Berlinale, among others. Their work has been exhibited at the New Museum, Brooklyn Museum, and The Kitchen, New York; and SALTS, Birsfelden. Wortzel has been supported by the Sundance Institute, Ford Foundation, Field of Vision, Doc Society, and Art Matters. Solo exhibitions include Dreams of Unknown Islands at Portland Institute of Contemporary Art and Cooley Gallery, Portland OR (2022) and Oolite Arts, Miami Beach, FL (2021). Wortzel’s work is in the permanent collections of the Brooklyn Museum, Studio Museum of Harlem, Leslie Lohman Museum of Art, and Miami Dade County Art in Public Places.

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