It is easy to miss Claire Lieberman's Walking Thru Jell-O at PDX Gallery's window project; most people do. White monitors display images of red Jell-O in the shape of water balloons as they are poked, pressed and crushed by a human foot. Sometimes, a curious pedestrian sees the strange, arresting images out of the corner of her eye. When one person stops to watch, others can't hide their interest; they peer over a shoulder, slow their pace or just stop and gawk openly as the odd gelatin forms jiggle and contort, eventually breaking apart under the weight of the anonymous foot.
It is more than just the herd mentality that arouses interest in these peculiar video loops. Jell-O, it seems, is charged with meaning. Anyone alive today can easily remember formative encounters with Jell-O, poking it with his or her spoon, wondering what kind of fantastic future lies ahead in a world that could create such a food. Lieberman suggests that even the shape of water balloons "relates our vision of nature to early childhood experience…[the screens] flicker with the nervous, erratic quality of memories whose presence in the mind is composed primarily of absence." And what happens when this absence, this childhood utopia meets an adult reality? It is changed, disfigured like these faux-balloons by a giant white foot we call real life or a job, or death. "As it [the Jell-O] is traversed," Lieberman notes, "the experience of violence is suggested." No wonder people can't help but stare at this orthopedic theatre--it is an absurd metaphor for our disenchanted, so-called "grown up" lives.
After Lieberman turned me on to just how philosophical Jell-O really was, I did a little research. According to the Jell-O Museum (and if you can't trust them, who can you trust?), on March 17, 1993, technicians at St. Jerome Hospital in Batavia, NY tested a bowl of lime Jell-O with an EEG machine, confirming earlier tests by Dr. Adrian Upton: "a bowl of wiggly Jell-O has brain waves identical to those of an adult man and woman." Can Jell-O think? And if so, what are Lieberman's gelatin forms contemplating as manicured toes pry open their innards before a dumbstruck audience of Pearl District shoppers?