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Robin Bernat: American Pastoral
January 10–April 6, 2003

Robin Bernat
American Pastoral, 2001
video installation
dimensions variable
Courtesy of the artist and Saltworks Gallery, Atlanta, GA

photo: Bruce Mathews

Grief can be unspeakably devastating, and is usually generously distributed. Most of us have had unsparing access to it. I once read something like this: if you knew beforehand the losses you’d suffer in your life, you couldn’t bear to live your life. So we take each modest heartache and each bone-crushing loss as it comes. Mostly we find a way to live alongside grief and the absence it delineates, not inside of it. Robin Bernat’s new work American Pastoral probes the humbling effects of loss through the death of her one true love. If that sounds like a romantic conceit, so be it, for Robin Bernat’s work is an earnest disquisition on compassion and redemption. In the museum debut of American Pastoral, Bernat couples landscape images of the South with indigenous American folk and gospel music in her search for transcendence, faith, and grace.

Robin Bernat created American Pastoral after the death of Daniel Zalik, her lifetime love. Lost on a camping trip in Argentina, he died by falling from a cliff into a river. For Bernat, his death is her most life-altering event, outpacing even the murder of her father when she was fourteen. Of the uncanny circumstances surrounding Zalik’s death Bernat writes,

I gave him a compass, but his accident happened after having become lost. I also had a very clear and disturbing vision about a month prior to his death about falling off a cliff into a river—and being in a dark pit which I interpreted as my own death. I sent an email to Daniel but neither of us had any idea it was about him, or I would have warned him which, in large measure, exacerbated my grief as I had this idea that I should have figured out that the vision was about Daniel. I had never had a “vision” before; only regular dreams so this was pretty peculiar to me. Also, I had started to write a poem … but the only words which I managed were “a swollen creek” and I didn’t have an idea why I had written this and came across this piece of paper the day that Daniel died.

Daniel Zalik’s body was found in a river, an image that Bernat cannot suppress.

Despite or because of Zalik’s death and Bernat’s ongoing guilt and bereavement, American Pastoral is an ingenuous and agile expression of faith. She credits Anne Lamott’s Travelling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith, and Mary Rose O’Reilley’s The Barn at the End of the World: The Apprenticeship of a Quaker, Buddhist Shepherd as influential clarifications of faith. Bernat was surprised at her own feelings of comfort within a Judeo-Christian idea of surrender. She notes, “These things still sound strange to me, but that is what got me through, a Jewish girl from Monroe, Louisiana … the idea that Jesus or God would take on the burden of my suffering is what saved my life because I had nothing but despair.”

American Pastoral is divided into five parts whose subtitles reflect Bernat’s literary and musical influences: Tender Buttons is the title of a text by Gertrude Stein which Bernat reads in whispers in two separate recordings edited together and dubbed over images of fireworks. Just a closer walk with thee is an anonymous hymn. Where water comes together with other water is the title of a short story by Raymond Carver, whose work Bernat loves. The old sheep done know the road; the young lamb must find the way are lyrics from a Negro spiritual recorded by Dorothy Love Coates, a Southern gospel singer. My barn having burned down, now I can see the moon is a Buddhist quote, seemingly metaphorical for acceptance.

Each part of American Pastoral comprises rural scenes that include pasturing cattle, nocturnal fireworks, a country baptism, swollen brown waterways (the Chattahoochee River), linens blowing on a clothes line, and more. The individual scenes are bound together by their movement toward redemption. Similar filmic techniques, music, spoken and written word, and overall dedication to the pastoral circumscribe the work. Bernat’s idealized and plainly romanticized vision of the American Southern landscape (anyone who has stood on the high-summer banks of a rural Georgia river is familiar with suffocating heat) suggests her desire for faith’s consolation, just as idealized images of a peaceful landscape offer succor. The scenes don’t suggest the humidity and the mosquitoes, but rather an Arcadian utopia where the land produces solace. That Bernat has chosen to elicit comfort from landscape, which in effect killed Daniel Zalik, witnesses her faith in redemption.

In the baptism scene, Bernat, who appears in almost all her own works in a search for emotional authenticity, is the supplicant who willingly kneels on a country porch. An unseen man (we see only his forearm and hand) cradles the back of her neck while water rushes over her head and body. The scene is fragile yet has the physical weight of sensuality, skin, water, movement, and light. Bernat’s toweling off after the baptism and her talking to someone out of camera range (we don’t hear her words) contribute to the self-reflexive nature of the filmic moment; yet still the artifice seems to belie itself—it seems uncontrived, or at least honest. The camera angle from which Bernat is filmed (from above) and her physical reaction to the water convey the inherent drama within this acutely physical, spiritual, and emotional moment.

In one American Pastoral scene, linens blowing in the breeze on a rural clothesline, grass burnt by the sun, light pulsating, all seem to signify an ethereal presence or a vision. The flickering of the images here and in the other sections of the work is effected by opening and closing the camera’s iris while filming. In editing, the films are slowed and strobed at a very high number to heighten the pulsing. Through these effects Bernat presents the familiar as supernatural, understanding that the spiritual is often grounded in the prosaic.

“The whole thing is not understood”—one of the only discernable lines spoken in Tender Buttons, Bernat’s recitation of the Gertrude Stein poem against a backdrop of fireworks—could summarize Bernat’s faith and this work. Bernat recorded the prose twice and then edited the two recitations together, creating a disquieting veil of whispered and slightly spoken words. The text becomes something other than itself, a body of sound upon which we are enchantingly held aloft. Robin Bernat’s video works have explored longing, solitude, and romantic notions of love and beauty. With American Pastoral she produces an elegiac visual and aural paean to spiritual grace. As she writes in Daniel’s Song, “a whole life of wounds accumulate, I think, Oh Lord, surely I will break.” But of course, like most of us, she doesn’t break. She draws upon and enhances the profoundly embedded history of spirituals, hymns, and the prayers of those who have, through a desire and longing for faith, achieved the grace to turn suffering into a requiem of solace.

Dana Self


Special thanks to Robin Bernat for her generous discussions with me about this work.

All quotes taken from an email exchange between Robin Bernat and Dana Self, 26 November 2002.

Original music written and produced by Railroad Earth Studio, Neil Fried, and Clark Vreeland with the exception of Daniel’s Song written by Robin Bernat. Photos: Mark Ramsey

Robin Bernat was an artist in residence at the Kemper Museum.