Jesse Fleming

The Snail and the Razor
American, born 1977

Single channel video
07:56 min., color, sound
Courtesy Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York

Over the past ten years, videographer Jesse Fleming has taken his viewers on immersive and transcendent journeys by employing straightforward, uncomplicated methods. Whether focused on a solitary event or on his own experimental voyages, he invites his audience to meditate on the extraordinary acts and behavior of ordinary beings.

Fleming was born in Los Angeles in 1977. After earning his BA in New Genres at San Francisco Art Institute in 2001, he returned to his hometown where he continues to live and work. His past projects include videos and films for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, the Museum of Modern Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, PERFORMA, and Matthew Barney. Fleming’s early experiences as a conceptual artist and still photographer are reflected in recent works that explore abstract ideas in visually engaging contexts and communicate concepts through actions as well as identifiable relationships. In this way, his work relates to the captivating earthworks of Robert Smithson and Michael Heizer, the environmental installations of Robert Irwin, and the experimental cinema of Michael Snow.

For Methods of Invisibility (2001–2009), Fleming created what he has termed Neutral Art based on the “idea of bridging two opposites to create something in a neutral state.” While driving from Los Angeles to New York City in an unmarked black-and-white police car, he wore gray uniforms, thus figuring as both cop and criminal. His appearance startled and puzzled other drivers, including police officers; however, nobody questioned or confronted Fleming. By generating the confusion of others, he essentially became an indeterminate figure that onlookers passively accepted.

Apart/Together (2009) documents the year in which Fleming studied domesticated coop pigeons in Brooklyn. In addition to the birds’ extraordinary flight patterns and formations, the video also includes footage taken from a camera that Fleming attached to one of the pigeons. Juxtaposed with imagery of group activity, the flight of an individual bird invites the viewer to meditate on the psychology of a self within a collective. Desert (2011) is another record of Fleming’s immersion in a transcendent space: his one-month isolation in Joshua Tree National Park. Quiet images of the sun, clouds, and geological features join shots of people speeding in off-road vehicles that form crop circle-like patterns in the valley.

He continues to place familiar elements in unfamiliar roles, notably in his recent work The Snail and the Razor (2012). In a single frame, Fleming directed a snail to climb up and over a razor blade. As the blade is balanced upright, the threat posed by its sharpened edge results in a gripping, anxiety-inducing eight minutes for the viewer. It seems at any moment the slithering mollusk will be sliced. The suspense is further heightened by the sound of a drum roll—akin to that of a circus act—that accompanies the snail’s journey. In effect, a minute act transforms into a spectacular performance.

While small in size, the epic undertaking of the snail is large in its expressive scope. The snail emerges from its trial uninjured, accomplishing a feat that others, including the viewer, might not. Fleming’s scenario cancels any doubt about the capabilities of a seemingly sluggish, vulnerable creature. Moreover, the episode suggests a triumph over adversity. The viewer identifies and forms an emotional connection with the snail. As Marlon Brando’s character reflected in Apocalypse Now: “I watched a snail crawl along the edge of a straight razor. That’s my dream. It’s my nightmare. Crawling, slithering, along the edge of a straight razor … and surviving.” What some consider a pest becomes a universalized figure, the size and species of which becomes less and less relevant as the video progresses. Fleming’s video therefore ingeniously demonstrates that big themes can come in small packages. — Contributed by Kanitra Fletcher