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Tabitha Soren’s ‘Surface Tension’ explores touch, technology in first solo Bay Area museum exhibition


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“Psychology.about.com/od/nonverbalcommunication/ss/understanding-body-language” by Tabitha Soren, on view in “Surface Tension” at the Mills College Art Museum. Photo: Tony Bravo

The first work that confronts viewers in Tabitha Soren’s exhibition “Surface Tension,” now at the Mills College Art Museum through Dec. 12, is a photograph of a human eye enlarged to fill a large wall partition. It is an image that is both grounding for the viewer in its epic scale and disorienting.

Within a few seconds, it’s clear the photo has had some kind of additional artistic intervention, but exactly what is hard to place. At the corners of the eye, at the lash line and around the pupil there are icy blue, fiery red and white smudges that seem to glimmer. Eventually, you can make out the lines and patterns of fingerprints in the iridescent smudges, a revelation that yields further questions.

“People’s first question is often about how these are made,” says Mills College Art Museum Executive Director Stephanie Hanor, the exhibition’s curator. “Their assumption these days about photography is that anything can be manipulated, that she found images and is overlaying these smears and fingerprints on top of it in Photoshop. For them to realize, no, it’s actually in the magic of the camera, makes me think a lot about the ways that we process information in our brains.”

The series was created by Soren using an 8-by-10 large-format camera to photograph (mostly) found images on her iPad screen. By positioning a raking light on the screen, trails of fingerprints from the oil our hands naturally secrete are revealed, interacting with the images in ways that are beautiful, haunting or even perplexing, depending on what’s pictured.

Even without the explanation of process, the works are captivating, almost painterly in the way the finger trails catch the light, and in how they interact with the images onscreen. Landscapes suddenly seem to melt or dissolve; human figures appear to be surrounded by motion lines or auras. For Soren, the series speaks to issues surrounding technology’s place in 21st century life, societal separation and most of all, human touch.

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“Twitter.com/paradise_ca,” 2019, by Tabitha Soren. On view in “Surface Tension” at the Mills College Art Museum. Photo: Tabitha Soren

“I really was trying to isolate one of the most intimate layers of the experience of interacting with technology,” says Soren, 54. “We have our warm animal bodies colliding with these perfectly designed technical devices which are glorious. We’re messy, sweaty, and the combination of those two parts of the world in one image was what I was trying to achieve.”

The inspiration for the series that comprises Soren’s first solo show at a Bay Area museum came seven years ago, when her daughter texted her a picture of herself blowing Soren a kiss goodnight.

“But she actually isn’t blowing me a kiss and she’s not kissing me goodnight,” says Soren. “She’s blowing a kiss into her iPad and taking a picture of it, and then she texted it to me upstairs in my bedroom instead of walking up the stairs and kissing my cheeks. I jumped up and went downstairs and said, ‘This is not the same thing. You realize that right?’”

For Soren, the intimacy and connection that was lost in the text exchange was something she wanted to explore further.

“This is not only happening with young people,” says Soren. “We’re all reacting to these devices in different ways. Yes, there is magic that comes along with technology, but there is also something lost.”

MERe6ede7f934ef9ada8e58253e52d9e soren11xx Tabitha Soren's 'Surface Tension' explores touch, technology in first solo Bay Area museum exhibition
Installation view of “psychology.about.com/od/nonverbalcommunication/ss/understanding-body-language,” by Tabitha Soren, on view in “Surface Tension” at the Mills College Art Museum. Photo: Tony Bravo

For Hanor, part of what initially fascinated her about the work was “the conversation between analog and digital” that the series represents through the iPad subjects and use of the 8-by-10 camera, a box-like device that creates large, highly detailed images.

The exhibition is divided into three sections focusing on existing images of climate disaster, protest and touch, with each picture photographed as it appeared on the iPad using Soren’s raked-light technique. Wildfires seem to shoot light or explode into clouds of exhaust with the screen’s fingerprint overlay while melting icebergs are surrounded by swirls of white in the climate section. The image of Soren’s daughter blowing the kiss evokes underwater air bubbles in the section exploring touch.

In the protest images, which include shots of 2016 protests in Charlotte, N.C., the first national Women’s March in 2017, the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 and the siege on the U.S. Capitol in 2021, human figures look at times caught up in the finger streaks as if amid tear gas, or as if they are whirling in action. Most of the protest images are suspended from the ceiling, backed with mirrors, causing them to move and further reflect light.

In a separate space in the gallery, Soren’s multichannel video and sound installation “Narcissus” features a mirrored sculpture installation on the floor meant to represent the iPads used in the creation of the series.

“The work is highly emotive,” says author and sociologist Sarah Thornton. “What I feel is marked by the fingerprints (is) real, deep human feeling. It’s not necessarily rational. Vision is supposed to be our coolest sense, most objective and distant sense, compared to smell or taste or touch, But somehow I feel like she’s bringing the intimacy of other senses to this with spectacular clarity.”

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Artist Tabitha Soren stands for a portrait in the doorway of her studio in Berkeley in 2017. Photo: Gabrielle Lurie / The Chronicle

“Surface Tension”: 11 a.m.-4. p.m. Tuesday; 11 a.m.- 7:30 p.m. Wednesday; 11 a.m.-4. p.m. Thursday-Sunday. Through Dec. 12. Mills College Art Museum, 5000 MacArthur Blvd., Oakland. 510-430-2164. mcam.mills.edu







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