Art News

Esther Hernandez Explores Coincidence in Acausal

Esther Hernandez is designing an abandoned living space.
Esther Hernandez is designing an abandoned living space. Alexander Elmore
When Esther Hernandez moved into her current studio space in June, she made a long list of all the coincidences she could remember ever occurring in her life. After almost two years of a pandemic and social justice actions, she wanted her next project to "bring people back to 'Hey, life can be magical.' Things can feel really good sometimes. Let's not forget about that," she says.

This became the basis for Acausal, an interactive installation opening Friday, November 5, at Understudy.

The term "acausal" was coined by psychologist Carl Jung to describe events with no apparent cause, which he used in tandem with "synchronicity," for events that have no apparent connection or cause, yet are linked in someone's mind because of their similarities or relatedness. (Synchronicity also happens to be the name of one of the Police's most popular albums.)

"It's a technical word that doesn't have a lot of emotion behind it," Hernandez says, explaining that her goal was to create something of a paradox between the exhibit's title and its content. "When you get into the stories and you hear that these people attribute certain things to causation, I like how it's like 'acausal.' But then, is it?"

Less than a week before Acausal's opening, Hernandez is in her studio, dying an old chair's upholstery red. She got the chair for free on Craigslist and was making it match a couch from the same site; the two will be used to construct a derelict living room at Understudy. Viewers will be able to wander around the living space and interact with found objects while they hear twenty stories of coincidence from the people who experienced them.

Hernandez chose a living room design because she's "obsessed with abandon core: these spaces that have a defunct couch and still have pictures on the wall and peeling wallpaper. There's something mysterious that draws me into those images," she says. "I wanted to see if I could make something that feels like that."
click to enlarge All of the stories are told by the people who experienced them. - ALEXANDER ELMORE
All of the stories are told by the people who experienced them.
Alexander Elmore
Transforming the Understudy space also involves cutting and layering vintage wallpaper and bringing in a used rug that Hernandez got from the Mercury Cafe while she was working there several years ago.  A TV will play a VHS tape combining snippets of an ’80s action film with details from Hernandez's life. A freshly minted record will allow listeners to hear several stories in a podcast-style edit, while a rotary telephone will give them the chance to listen to one of Hernandez's friends "go on about this one night he had where all of these coincidences layered on top of each other throughout the night. He's a talker and a thinker, and he processes by talking. It's kind of like talking to your friend on the phone as they tell you this really long story," she explains. There's even a taxidermied fox named Ginger to complement the Victorian-era vibe.

Gathering the objects was the easy part; gathering the stories was much more challenging. "I should have started sooner, probably," Hernandez admits. "I started in the summer, but with certain things, I feel like it can take years to collect stories. All of the physical stuff comes later. We only have two days to install."
She collected the twenty stories through conversations with friends and family members, as well as a complete stranger who submitted a coincidence through Hernandez's website; they range from thirty-second to thirty-minute retellings. Her favorite story came from a friend and involves a seashell. It will be on the record, with a photo of the shell on the record sleeve — but Hernandez is keeping most details of the stories secret until the opening.

One of the biggest coincidences that Hernandez thought of back in June, and one of two from her personal life that are part of the show, involves the 1988 action film Dead Heat. It's about cops who uncover a seedy operation that reanimates corpses to commit crimes. As a child, Hernandez watched the film on VHS religiously, obsessing over the monster with veiny, bulbous skin and three faces meshed together. Years later, she became close friends with a new girl in town, and wouldn't you know it? Her father was the actor who played that monster.
click to enlarge Ginger the taxidermied fox. - ALEXANDER ELMORE
Ginger the taxidermied fox.
Alexander Elmore
This story is one of the more "tame" in the show, she says, and she acknowledges that the coincidences that resonate with her won't necessarily be the ones that viewers remember. Still, she hopes the show will be life-affirming, with its heavy dose of mystery and nostalgia.

Despite the set design, nostalgia wasn't what she was looking for when she started gathering anecdotes. But she found that "a lot of stories happen in different phases of people's lives. Some people say, 'Oh, I had a lot of coincidences when I was younger, but not anymore,'" she explains. "Actually, the majority of them are pretty old, except for a few. Even the recent stories involve older artifacts."

A few decaying books borrowed from her sister — an arithmetic schoolbook and a tarot card instructional book — are among those artifacts. To Hernandez, they represent the two approaches to viewing coincidence: with left-brain or right-brain mentality.

"If you consider coincidence from a scientific perspective, you'd think, yes these things are coincidental. If you believe in precognition or ghosts, then some of these stories are explained that way, too, by the people who are telling them," she elaborates. "But they're also on the fence, so coincidence versus ghosts versus psychic. The topic envelops all of these different experiences.

"I grew up Christian, so I attributed [coincidences] to God, and now I'm not really Christian, so I don't think that way," Hernandez continues. "I do feel like these kinds of stories and moments make you feel like you're part of something greater, even if you can't explain it or you don't have any specific beliefs that you attribute it to. It feels like there is meaning behind life. But then I have my moments where I'm like, 'Life has no meaning.' So I'm all over the place, but I do love these kinds of stories. They make me feel really good."
click to enlarge Some of the stories are represented through photographs rather than interactive objects. - ALEXANDER ELMORE
Some of the stories are represented through photographs rather than interactive objects.
Alexander Elmore
Hernandez found that while her storytellers' backgrounds and beliefs vary — some are even storytellers by profession — most leaned into the weirdness of their memories. "Some people don't even say what they thought about the experience, they just tell the experience," she adds.

Ultimately, Acausal does not attempt to explain anything; Hernandez prefers that her viewers come up with their own interpretations. In the end, her thesis is simple: "We don't know everything," she concludes.  "This is one of those mysterious topics that makes you question the nature of reality and what we know, what we understand, what we don't. What's crazy is that we make up crazy stories about things we don't understand.

"But also we're pattern-makers. We look for patterns in everything, and I think [coincidences are] one of those instances."

Acausal opens Friday, November 5, and will be on view through November 28 at Understudy, 890 C 14th Street. The gallery is open Thursday through Sunday; for hours and more information, visit the Understudy website. For more information about Acausal, see Esther Hernandez's website.
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