I came home Saturday afternoon from the On Sight opening to find a postcard filed in between the bills and magazines in our mail slot. Thumbing through the stack, I almost passed it over as an ad for a dental office or realtor before recognizing the image. The I-405 overpasses looked familiar, but the yellow Penske trucks grounded the image immediately in the industrial edge of the Pearl. In the lower corner, a young man crosses into the frame – presumably Paulsen. To a Portlander, the image initiates a game, a photographic “Where’s Waldo?” of the local landscape. I turned the card over and confirmed my suspicions about its sender. And there, below his name and mailing address, I saw the quiet statement : “I’m Searching Too”.
Paulsen cards
It stands as such a simple, but enigmatic phrase. These words at once include the recipient in Paulsen’s search, acknowledge the commonality of searching and leave the search open for continuation. Apparently, the recipient isn’t who (or what) Paulsen is searching for, but by receiving his card, you are invited to be a companion-in-arms. My search was for the connections between this tiny bit of mail-art and his exhibit at PNCA, from which I had just gotten back.
Along with Anna Gray, Paulsen has created a room for the searcher, the sleuth, and the explorer. At the center of the room is a small toy boat, moored away from water in a mound of gravel. Just in front of it, a pencil-drawn map of the world spans two adjoining walls. The trade routes and ocean currents are replaced with scrolling script recounting failed explorations and early navigators. Up until this point, Gray and Paulsen’s work seemed to romanticize the adventure and allure of seafaring exploration, but upon turning around, I make the connection that I believe Paulsen intended for. Paulsen embraces all of the iterations of a search – the literal explorations, the euphemistic meanings, the puns. And there I am facing a wall-sized word-search.
I took a printed-out copy of the word-search from the exhibit and now at home with Paulsen’s card, I have begun to seek out the words and search for the relationships and histories behind them. The list of phrases range the entire spectrum of the searchable. Words include objects (comfortable shoes), the paranormal (UFOs, Atlantis, Loch Ness), qualities (satisfaction), jokes (Waldo), and lost adventurers (Earhart, Slocum). Amongst the names of those lost-at-sea, Paulsen makes the tellingly sly choice of including Bas Jan Ader, a Dutch conceptual artist who disappeared from his boat in the midst of a solo performance piece entitled, “In Search of the Miraculous.” A wry nod to history and influences sure, but also a slightly dark aside about the nature of performance.
Looking at Paulsen’s list of words, all of the varied meanings that we assign to the word “search” begin to overlap. Is it an internal search for a quality or is it a matter of finding a misplaced or hidden item? Can these two types of searches ever be fully separated? What happens to the explorer who devotes a lifetime to looking for that which can’t be found? What of those who are lost in their own searches, only to become themselves objects of a search? At the root of his project, it seems that Paulsen is searching for what it is that he should be searching for, compiling an encyclopedic array of searches. In the process, he makes it clear that we have a very hard time being content with what we know and have. Searching, whether for a place, an object, an individual, or a concept seems to be one of those elemental qualities of the human mentality.
I wonder if anyone who traveled from out of town for TBA will return home to a card, and if so, how they will read it? Perhaps it will seem like a postcard not from Portland, but from the festival – an elusive and temporary space, a Shangri-La. It will likely be a bit of a search just to remember where the card came from.
posted by patrick l.