McLean Fahnestock: Over the Horizon


By: Anthony J. Morris

Anthony Morris Morris St. Clare of Burbank
McLean St. Clare of Burbank


Video and digital media artist McLean Fahnestock is a prodigal daughter of Tennessee who spent a decade in California before her return in 2014. She began her career as an artist working sculpturally with found objects. She created installations of asphalt slabs supported by champagne flutes to generate a tension in which the viewer senses that the work will destroy itself, that the glass will break and the slabs will fall.


The fact that the materials were designed to survive the duration of the exhibition made works like this unfulfilling for Fahnestock because there was no resolution for the viewer, who senses the conflict between materials was feigned.


The surviving materials retained the preciousness that she was struggling against. A path to resolving this challenge occurred in 2008 in her MFA thesis exhibition for which she created a steel armature representing the contours of a wingback chair. The collapsible structure was suspended in the gallery and daily dipped into a vat of glycerin to generate a chair shaped bubble that would pop and destroy itself. But the nature of the material allowed the form to be recreated daily, and redestroyed. The resolved tension appealed to Fahnestock, but a new problem presented itself because the work was very performative in that it required the artist, or a proxy, to manipulate the pulley system lowering the armature into the glycerin. The work was further limited by space, duration, and labor.


But Fahnestock flanked the bubble chair with two looped videos of manipulated found footage of Hilary Clinton speaking about her husband’s affair in 1998 and a mostly silent portion of David Frost’s 1979 interview with the Shah of Iran. Through video, Fahnestock found the medium that could create and resolve inherent tensions that could restart and repeat itself. Shortly after beginning her work with video, she became a studio assistant to noted multimedia artist, Bill Viola. Working with Viola, his contracts, and his collectors, Fahnestock became well versed in the collector’s concerns about reproduction and conservation of the medium. Knowing that the media players (i.e. a DVD player or VCR) are likely to become obsolete and unavailable in the future, sales of Fahnestock’s work often include one player and two digital copies of the video. Her contracts often specify that additional formats of the video require permission of the artist. Such concerns are specific to her medium as paintings and sculptures result in a physical object whose care and preservation fall on the collector who is unable to duplicate the purchased object.


In 2010, Fahnestock created St. Clare of Burbank for which she retrofitted a 1960s era television so that it would play a DVD containing footage of the moon landing. Fahnestock then recorded a video of the footage playing on the television. The DVD player was designed to go inside the television, but in order to capture the flickering bands characteristic of turning on a tube television, Fahnestock needed to manipulate the device from behind. This left her visible in the footage she shot of the television.


In post-production, she blacked out the background so that she would not be visible. The final video is just under two minutes, and it starts with the TV turning on, followed by the footage, and ending with the TV picture condensing into a white spot that dissipates as the TV is turned off. This allows the footage to be seamlessly looped during exhibition because the TV looks the same at the start and end points of the video. Fahnestock maintains control over the scale of the work, a condition of digital work that is not necessary for artists making physical objects. A painting has definite dimensions that do not change upon installation, but scale can be much more flexible as projected light if the artist is not specific regarding her vision. In the case of St. Clare of Burbank, the projected image was to be the size of a 1960s era television, and positioned in such a way that the projected legs of the TV were virtually touching the floor of the gallery. This allowed visitors to sit on a bench before the video, and imagine watching the 1969 broadcast at home.


Fahnestock’s grandfather has become a vital source of inspiration for her recent work. Part of the success of her earlier bubble chair was that its content came from familial relationships. Fahnestock recalls her step-grandfather who sat in a wingback chair when he had been drinking. Under these circumstances, she and her sister often found themselves waiting for “the bubble to pop.” Her work since 2013 has been largely inspired by her grandfather, Captain John Sheridan Fahnestock, a famed explorer of the South Pacific and captain of the ill-fated “Director II.” While Captain Fahnestock was below deck, the “Director II” hit a sandbar close to shore near Gladstone, Australia. In the Offing is a video collage that speaks to the explorer’s desire to see what is beyond the horizon. Fahnestock sampled footage from (nearly) every Hollywood film set in the South Pacific during her grandfather’s career (1932-1965), and pieced them together.


The video consists of two or three overlapping rectangles whose primary content is a moving horizon line. In the film clips, the horizontal line moves up and down the screen and is rarely parallel with the top and bottom border of the screen. Fahnestock manipulated the overlaid rectangles so that at all times the horizon line of both images is aligned and the horizon line is truly horizontal. Rarely do the borders of the rectangles run parallel to one another and the size of the rectangles changes frequently to accommodate the vertical shift where ocean meets sky. The horizon line becomes the dominant element of the composition, and the viewer is hypnotized as it gently rocks. The images are paired with music sampled from the films, and recomposed by the artist. The quick tempo excites the viewer mirroring the anticipation of an explorer to see what is beyond the horizon.


In 2014, Fahnestock returned to Tennessee from California, residing for a year in rural Sango just outside of Clarksville. Shortly after relocating, she considered how place and regionalism could be incorporated into her work. She started to see connections between the sea/sky delineation and the horizontal cornfields near her home. For Landlocked Ocean, Fahnestock projected found footage of crashing waves onto the cornfield. The video begins as the sun sets, and the projected waves become visible as the rural darkness enshrouds the field. The sound accompanying the video includes the cicadas at sunset, giving way to crickets and frogs after dark. Occasional noise from passing traffic reminds the viewer of the rural road that is only visible at the beginning of the video. Fahnestock describes this project as an ongoing one. She has recently moved to a suburb of Nashville, and has plans to extend this concept from her new home.


During the summer of 2016, Fahnestock travelled to Queensland, Australia to further research the conflicting reports of her grandfather’s history and explorations. She discovered that alcohol played a significant role in the crash of the “Director II,” and that the stories she had been told that they crashed into the Great Barrier Reef with inaccurate maps could not have been true based on the location of the crash and the inventory of maps aboard. She discovered that her grandmother’s tale that the ship could not be removed and that over time the ocean broke it apart, was also untrue. The ship was blocking trade routes, so it was dynamited. The mythology of her grandfather seemed an inevitable outcome of exploration and exposed “truth” and “reality” as subjective choices made by the authors of the history. While in Australia, she began a series of videos combining found footage with her own to create a diptych of sorts in which two videos of water create a fake horizon line with no footage of sky.


In Stratagem 8 for example, the quiet horizon of the ocean from a distance is visible below waves crashing onto shore and either image can be read by the viewer as sky. Fahnestock sees the falsehood of the seascapes as a metaphor not only of her grandfather’s untruths, but of the human instinct to err and rationalize events. Fahnestock envisions these Stratagems to act as reversible screen savers. Essentially, the collector is permitted to choose the orientation, or rather which water will act as sky. This is also related to her grandfather’s mythology, because through the competing stories, people chose which ones they accepted as the “true” events, but reality cannot be recaptured, only interpretation. They also signify the disorientation of travel, especially by sea in which place in the world can be marked through navigation of stars, but not by landscape.


While continuing to work on the Stratagems, Fahnestock has begun gathering footage of the sites of shipwrecks. In these videos she will digitally extract the contour of the ship that crashed, leaving a void to be collaged in the footage. This will require near frame-by-frame animation, a craft and skill set that Fahnestock is mastering as she embarks on this project. She has been invited back to Australia in the summer of 2017 to continue research about her grandfather, to collect more narratives, and more footage.