A flutter of images

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Visual arts preview

"Mike MacDonald: Video Installations"

"Mike MacDonald: Video Installations," through Dec. 31 at Sacred Circle Gallery of American Indian Art, Daybreak Star Arts Center, Discovery Park, Seattle, open 10 a.m.-5 p.m Monday-Saturday, noon-5 p.m. Sunday (free, 206-285-4425).

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Like cows nosing up to a feed trough, a motley-looking group of rocking chairs huddles around a video screen at Sacred Circle Gallery. There's no light except the video projection, so it's not at first apparent that each chair is painted a different color. This rainbow of spectators animates the room in a welcoming and decidedly homely way. Joining them, you quickly shed whatever buzz of activity you've been part of and fall into silence. The screen flickers with butterfly wings.

Usually when we see a butterfly up close it's a dead one, pinned like a sad jewel in some collector's case. Here they're collected in a more wholesome way, on video, and Canadian Mike MacDonald presents them to us not as a naturalist in search of new species, but as an artist, intent on making a point. In "Touched by the Tears of a Butterfly," he's reminding us in a gut-level way that pesticides and bioengineering are fast destroying the creatures who are captivating us on screen. They aren't replaceable.

We hear that every day from some environmental group or other; but MacDonald isn't pedantic about it. For him, color is the language of the natural world, and that's the language he uses to appeal to us. He puts us nose-close to butterflies - miracle enough. We get to witness metamorphosis as a monarch emerges from the translucent bounds of its pupa, slipping out gently upside-down, like a baby being born, its black-and-white spotted body shocking against green leaves. Its damp wings at first stick and waver, then dazzle us with flame at first opening. The camera blinks and our gaze is transported to a purple echinacea flower, nuzzled by the sun-streaked monarch.

What makes this art and not just another PBS-style nature special, you might ask? MacDonald does. He starts off his video literally enough, with that butterfly birth. But as he progresses, the camera tracks one butterfly and then another - white lace wings against lacy white flowers, orange against emerald, iridescent blue against matte-gray stone - until the screen seems to be a mutable canvas.

For seconds at a stretch, replacing the butterflies, color test bars appear like bits of brilliant kimono cloth hanging from a line. The screen itself is a wing-sheer bit of wavering silk hanging from the ceiling. All the elements in the room - the chairs, the screen, the flutter of images - contribute to the meaning of the piece. The video progresses from representing the butterflies to using them as elements in an abstract composition of living hues.

MacDonald, who's of Micmac and Beothuk Nation as well as European heritage, lives in Vancouver, B.C., and is one of a number of Native American artists who enjoy the irony of reproducing nature on video or audiotape, in a way that sometimes lightheartedly undermines Indian stereotypes. Seattle artist John Feodorov (who'll be showing at Sacred Circle Gallery next summer) is another who comes to mind. His style relies on his Indian heritage but pokes fun at the cultural absurdities that get wrapped up in it - kind of like what writer Sherman Alexie does in print and film.

MacDonald's other installation, "Medicine Tent," is a three-sided teepee, with each side animated by a video projection. Once again, MacDonald - unlike many video artists, whose only concern is for the integrity of their visual presentation - welcomes his viewers into the dark room by providing benches to sit on. Here the images we see are flowers and medicinal plants and flitting insects endangered by environmental pollutants. We are led to associate the "medicine tent" - and thereby the land-based way of life that American Indians maintained before European contact - as being similarly endangered.

As always, just being in the Sacred Circle Gallery is a calming experience. You can look out the double doors of the gallery into the vaulted interior of the Daybreak Star Arts Center, with its massive log beams and pillars like living trees supporting the structure. A wide window looks out on Discovery Park and Puget Sound. The place appears pristine, not only far away from the bustle of the city, but a little remote in time as well. A real-world reminder of what Mike MacDonald's art is about.