Screen Smudges Become the Subject in Tabitha Soren’s ‘Surface Tension’

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Close-up of giant eyeball on wall with framed photos behind it.
Installation view of ‘Tabitha Soren: Surface Tension’ at Mills College Art Museum. (Tabitha Soren)

What do we see when we look at an image: its content, its colors, its composition? How much of that do we skip over and ignore? In most cases, we’re looking through something to get at our main objective; a bit of Plexiglas sits in front of an artwork, hoping to become invisible. A transparent film coats a phone’s screen, hoping to protect its surface from sudden shocks.

I’m constantly looking through the dust and smudges on my glasses to see the world around me, completely forgetting my view is edged by rims. Inevitably, the detritus becomes too distracting. The surface catches the light and supplants the image, reminding me of the corrective lenses enabling my sight.

At the Mills College Art Museum, Bay Area artist Tabitha Soren’s solo exhibition Surface Tension draws from the multiple meanings implied in her title. The show is made up of photographs of Soren’s iPad, all shot on film, which capture both the surface of the tablet after varying periods of use and the images displayed on its screen. No sleek Cupertino-designed edges betray this setup, but our well-trained eyes immediately recognize a mash of digital and physical. Within the layers of those two things are all manner of additional subjects: fingerprints, smeary swipes, glitchy effects caused by light and oily residue, the orderly grid of pixels.

Smears over a photo of a burning store and car.
Tabitha Soren, ‘twitter.com/paradise_ca,’ 2019. (Courtesy of the artist and Mills College Art Museum)

Soren’s “surface” is the iPad, but also the depth of engagement we often have with what we see on those screens. Some of the tension comes from the drama in the images she appropriates: tender moments, man-made natural disasters, scenes of protest, a world in ceaseless flux. There is also tension in the relationship Soren creates between the randomized and flat interaction of a person’s fingers and the real world events happening beyond their reach.

The pawed-over smears of Katie’s Vacation Phone Photo, an icy landscape seen from water, encapsulate the futility of trying to grasp something so monumental as warming seas and shrinking ice caps.

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The exhibition zooms in (a giant hand doing a reverse pinching gesture) from the global effects of human touch to everyday moments of physical closeness. In the gallery’s center, a display of hanging prints backed by mirrored plastic features scenes of mass gatherings—the Women’s March, Black Lives Matter protests, Parkland students holding a vigil one year after the shooting. Our own faces appear distorted in this presentation, further questioning our relationship to these events.

Framed photographs hang on two walls, suspended prints hang from ceiling.
Installation view of ‘Tabitha Soren: Surface Tension’ at Mills College Art Museum. (Michael Halberstadt)

While the subject matter in the images she screen-shot, saved and repurposed for Surface Tension is important to the project, my favorite moments in the show come from the breakdown of those images. Moments when the red, green and blue subpixels of the LCD screen seem to disobey their function. Places where the neat mesh of the grid dissolves like a snarled net—a messy interplay of studio lights, oily refraction and electronics. A blown-up image of a smeary eye greets visitors to the exhibition, cast in searing shades of red and blue and resembling, more than anything, the grimy decadence of a Marilyn Minter painting.

These excitingly chaotic effects are countered by the exhibition’s Narcissus installation, a darkened room of projected video and three prints of marks on black screens, laid face-up on the gallery floor. It’s meant as a respite, a literal space for reflection (whether of your own face, like the mythological youth, or just a mental break from the charged images outside). For me, even this stripped-down display contains too much information to be truly relaxing. Bean bag chairs can only get you so far. At the same time, Narcissus is too engineered to convey the frantic distraction of being extremely online, an ineffable quality Soren successfully captures elsewhere.

Projected video of moonlight on a lake with three large photographs of fingerprints on the floor.
Installation view of ‘Narcissus’ at Mills College Art Museum. (Michael Halberstadt)

Stepping back into the light of Surface Tension, the show’s strongest elements emerge as an attempt to reconcile our digital and physical actions. Even though these are not our pictures or our fingerprints, we’re implicated throughout. We carry bootlegs of these artworks around in our pockets. Angle your phone’s surface this way and that to catch the accumulated marks that show your swipes; your double taps; your scrolling down, down, down for that lost hour that felt like a few minutes.

Traces of touch are all over our devices. Highlighting these signs of life with raking light, Soren’s photographs ask what we’re not touching in their stead.

‘Tabitha Soren: Surface Tension’ is on view at the Mills College Art Museum through Dec. 12, 2021. Details here.