Salvaged Dwellings: In Search of Place, Part I

March 27, 2014 · Print This Article

Atlanta has been experiencing growth in its art community, particularly within the past few years. Organizations like Dashboard Co-Op look to the abandoned and uninhabited spaces of the city as sites to host exhibitions. Efforts to expand gallery spaces to downtown are underway; note the addition of Mammal Gallery to Broad St., Eyedrum to MLK and its attempts to expand into another building downtown. The newly created Low Museum by students and former BFA students at Georgia State University. In one way, this particular development is specifically Atlantan; in another way, maybe this work could be in any other city. Maybe not.

Lucy Lippard claims in her 1997 book The Lure of the Local: Senses of Place in a Multicentered Society that she had been “lured to the subject of the local by its absence or rather by the absence of value attached to specific place in contemporary cultural life, in the “art world,” and in postmoderns paradoxes and paradigms.”

Symptomatic of this clinging to a postmodern fragmentation is the 2012 book Noplaceness: Art in a Post-Urban Landscape, published by Possible Futures which inaugurated Atlanta Art Now, a print biennial that examines contemporary art in Atlanta. Yes, we could comment on Lippard’s incredible privilege that enables her to easily live in multiple places either diachronically or synchronically. This does not mean, though, that we should throw out “place” entirely. The introduction to Noplaceness states that the book is “a study of Atlanta artists’ responses to an urban condition now made global” (3). Further, the book proposes “noplaceness” as “an attempt to describe the quality of space rendered abstract by the conditions of postindustrial capitalism and global information flows” (3). The introduction ends with a question: “Where is our common ground when the space we occupy doesn’t add up to a place we can define?” (5). I’d like to address this question and the problem of the local and the global as it maps onto the city of Atlanta.

My last article addressed the cave as both a literal and figurative site for artistic practice and examined the conditions which produced this specific project’s way of creating, maintaining, and navigating its art world. What I’d like to do in the space of this piece is address a few artists’ sculptural practices that evoke/provoke reflection on the state of affairs. Mind you, these works are not meant to be specifically about Atlanta as place or its development as an art hub. Rather, I am interested in how these works because of their complexity in terms of materiality and conceptuality, enable us to point to our present condition and begin to pose it questions. These works, though not tied explicitly to Atlanta, all make manifest the material and social conditions of this place. Indeed, this is a place.

Destruction

Drew Conrad’s 2013 solo show at Get This Gallery, Backwater Blues, consists of assemblage-esque sculptures that show themselves as burnt remnants of a home that once stood. However, the materials making up his works are not salvaged, like the other artists I will be discussing in this piece. Rather, Conrad uses raw materials that he distresses by hand. It would be too easy to jump to questions about authenticity, here. Rather, what this process of ruination prompts us to question concerns our own involvement in degradation and destruction in our world.

Drew Conrad. Dwelling No. 5 (Punching Bag). 2013. Courtesy Get This Gallery.

Drew Conrad. “Dwelling No. 5 (Punching Bag).” 2013. Courtesy Get This Gallery.

Being a native Midwesterner, it is difficult not to envision images of Detroit when viewing architectural char and when thinking about urban decay and renewal. Photo books and photo essays abound that use Detroit’s ruins as subject. This unconscious association of mine inflects works I see here in the South that address similar issues of degradation. Upon seeing these remnants that appear charred, though in fact are not, I am reminded of the industrial-soot-blackened façades of the Motor City. Or, I could instead see these ruins as products of time and erosion, either the gentle wind and water forces that inhabit the Bayou State, or the aggressive inundations that occur (i.e., Hurricane Katrina). Or, considering Conrad’s being New-York-based, Hurricane Sandy. Particularly with the artist’s references to Christian Boltanski’s work (i.e., the lights and hanging electrical cords), the works scream a trauma; it is difficult to view these ruins as products of mere time and weather. Though Conrad only uses dirt, rust, and stains – no fire of any kind – these ruins take on a violent past, one that involved Ku Klux Klan instigated arson and murder. This reading may not be the artist’s intention, but when situated within particular conditions of geography, history, materiality, society, etc. the artist’s decision to destroy becomes a powerful reminder of what we have destroyed, what we are currently destroying, and what we will destroy in the future. In an email interview Conrad states: “I would claim that works of art do not exist anywhere or that their histories do not have a direct route.  I want the sculptures to be a jumping off point where the viewer completes the missing pieces and writes their history of the object’s past. So the sculptures, which fall in the titled series of Dwellings, hopefully exist somewhere in the in between.” This in-between is a poignant place. I would argue with Conrad though about where this in-between is situated; it is somewhere.

Disorientation

I spin through the glass revolving door and enter the lobby of Midtown Plaza, a nondescript office building located in the liminal space between Atlanta’s Midtown and Buckhead. I am told to use the elevator to go to level M where the exhibition COSMS is located. After stepping off the elevator, I turn into a whole level gutted interior of this office building. Dashboard Co-Op, a non-profit art organization, looks for spaces such as this to host their exhibitions. Dashboard’s mission is to curate shows in these “forgotten haunts,” these spaces devoid of people and purpose. The works in the show are supposed to respond to the site of this vacant space, and one work in particular stood out as a potent intervention into this concrete, barren place.

Chris Chambers. "untitled (powder room)." 2014. Courtesy the artist.

Chris Chambers. “untitled (powder room).” 2014. Courtesy the artist.

Chris Chambers’ untitled (powder room) is a daunting sculptural installation, a bathroom jacked up on cinder blocks, perilously titling off kilter. The viewer walks into this confined space to find a 1/2 bathroom complete with toilet, sink, cabinet, mirror, ceiling with a skylight, closet, tiles, carpet, and potted plant. Standing inside this powder room, orientation becomes confused. Exiting becomes treacherous. The floor seems to slip away from its usual groundedness as a perpendicular plane. Seeing this powder room, which is nonfunctional and eerie made me hyperaware of this particular office building’s infrastructure: so, if I’m not to use this bathroom, where might and what might the usable one be like? This room, reminiscent of installations by Janet Cardiff and George Bures-Miller, takes on a sinister quality, pointing towards the infrastructures of public and domestic spaces and their demise. Important to the sculpture is the source of these materials. Chambers, who also works as a builder and remodeler of homes, finds his materials through what people discard. The wallpaper is a horrendous 1990s pattern that you might have experienced in homes or medical offices growing up during that time. It covers these powder room walls in a “skin” (Chambers’ term) of the old, what is gotten rid of in order to update, to become more hip to contemporary interior design.

Chambers’ other installation work incorporates CRT (cathode ray tube) televisions and collected VHS and the environment builds around the technology. Speaking with Chambers in his studio, he describes how his installation work grew out of the video work; the installations ground the video work in a certain place in which the viewer can situate herself and watch. His installation Untitled (Kevin) creates a living room situation complete with rugs, house plants, lamps, and television, though for this piece there were over 40 TVS, all playing videos made from footage of Kevin Costner. As a child of the 80s, I can connect to the aesthetic of the decor coupled with Costner’s face (Robin Hood Prince of Thieves was both terrifying and awesome to me growing up). In a way, this creates an inter-geographical relation. However, this work does not lead to a privileging of supposedly immaterial telecommunicative space. Rather, in this world of televisions and globally recognized faces, this work grounds itself in the place of the living room, which maybe significantly is here.

Important to the work is the disposability of technology. Televisions, the big boxy ones of the 80s and 90s, are on the outs. With the change from CRT televisions to LCD and LED screens, the shapes have changed.  With the rise of digital cable, the use of analog broadcast technologies for television have faded; out with the TV antenna, in with the satellite dish. We are led to believe that telecommunications technologies is where our “place” is; we can believe that because we have these technologies, we don’t need to actually exist anywhere. The idea of the “cloud” furthers this sentiment. It allows us to so easily forget the material conditions that contribute to and make possible this ethereal networked space.

Instability

The Goat Farm Arts Center is a 12-acre complex of artist studios (some live/work), performance/exhibition spaces, a coffee shop, a local agricultrual endeavor Fresh Roots Farm, and goat pen. The particular history of this site is important. The place was an industrial cotton gin at the turn of the 19/20th century and then a munitions manufacturing site during WWII. This is a pretty gruesome history that comes with the site which has served as an artist compound of sorts since the 1970s when the complex was bought by Robert Haywood, who died in 2009. Since his death, the site was bought by Hallister Development, headed by Anthony Harper and Chris Melhouse, and artist studios continue to live there and grow.

In 2013, Justin Rabideau installed his works Echo and The Distance of the Moon at The Goat Farm, both of which create a certain kind of environment and landscape in this place they are installed. As part of the culmination show for the 2011-13 artists-in-residence for The Creatives Project Momentum: Exit to the Future, The Distance of the Moon situates itself within the context of Atlanta’s fiscal, material, and social histories. What does it mean to install a work that gives the viewer a staircase to the moon, which cannot be walked up?

Justin Rabideau. The Distance of the Moon. 2013. Courtesy the artist.

Justin Rabideau. “The Distance of the Moon.” 2013. Courtesy the artist.

Justin Rabideau’s use of found materials to construct his sculptures alludes to the material conditions of the production of art and where it is made. Speaking with Rabideau in his studio, he described to me that his practice changed dramatically when he moved to Atlanta a few years ago. Since his practice involves gathering materials, mainly natural elements, he finds in his surroundings, he noticed that what he was finding most was discarded building materials and detritus left over from collapsed and disintegrating structures in this urban environment. One of Rabideau’s works made shortly after his move to Atlanta titled, An Illusion of Stability, which was installed in his exhibition with James Bridges Waste Not, speaks to a possible art historical trajectory of the Surrealist found object to land art, Anarchitecture, and site-specific art. What do we find when we go searching for something in a certain place? Drew Conrad mentioned that these sorts of materials are not easy to come by in New York, so why are they in Atlanta?

These materials including the TV antenna find their way into The Zuckerman Museum of Art at Kenessaw State University, just north of Atlanta, by way of the exhibition See Through Walls, which instates the museum’s recently opened expansion. The show examines the physical infrastructures that undergird architecture and art display.

Casey McGuire’s piece in the show, Terrestrial Apparatus Poised for Lights Out (2010), presents the viewer with a wooden structure positioned in a precarious situation. Made of salvaged materialsfrom abandoned homes and foreclosure renovations in her local surroundings, including a TV antenna, the structure is described as a “box trap.” Propped up on a stick and connected to a rope, the viewer is “lured” in closer in hopes to “trap” her in this strange housing situation. The strategy used for trapping the viewer is soft playback, soft enough that the viewer has to lean her head up inside the box, of Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer,” for McGuire a “tongue-in-cheek” response to the nostalgia that she references – “American dreams based on structure and home and the decaying reality of these ideals.”

Casey McGuire. "Terrestrial Apparatus Poised for Lights Out." 2010. Courtesy the artist.

Casey McGuire. “Terrestrial Apparatus Poised for Lights Out.” 2010. Courtesy the artist.

The inclusion of the antenna on the roof of this “box trap” points to the disposability of technologies. In a time when all things globalized promote telecommunications as a way to secure one’s place everywhere and nowhere, this antenna forces us to consider our communication choices.

Adding another layer of complexity to this work is the context surrounding it, both histrocially and art historically (i.e., Gordon Matta-Clark’s 1974 Splitting). Atlanta-based artist Ruth Stanford’s (of particular interest for this article too is her 2006 exhibition at The Mattress Factory In the Dwelling-House) commissioned work A Walk in the Valley, which responded to Kennesaw State’s acquisitioned property that had belonged to Corra Harris, was removed from the exhibition by the University’s administration. (The administration has since agreed to re-install the work.) Harris’ prominence as a writer solidified with her 1899 letter to the editor of The Independent, “A Southern Woman’s View,” which argued to uphold lynching as a practice. This history and the subsequent censored artist-commissioned response to it further solidifies the importance of place and our recognition of it. Yes, we live in a globalized world, but that does not mean that we exist nowhere within it and that the specificities of where we live, work, and surf the net don’t inform our ways of navigating this international telecommunicative system.

What Can We Still Say About Place?

Writing about the evolution of site-specific art, from land works to public art, Miwon Kwon states in her 2002 book One Place After Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity:

“In this sense the chance to conceive the site as something more than a place – as repressed ethnic history, a political cause, a disenfranchised social group – is an important conceptual leap in redefining the public role of art and artists.

But the enthusiastic support for these salutary goals needs to be checked by a serious critical examination of the problems and contradictions that attend all forms of site-specific and site-oriented art today, which are visible now as the art work is becoming more and more unhinged from the actuality of the site once again – “unhinged” both in a literal sense of a physical separation of the art work from the location of its initial installation, and in a metaphorical sense as a performed in the discursive mobilization of the site in emergent forms of site-oriented work. This unhinging, however, does not indicate a reversion to the modernist autonomy of the siteless, nomadic art object, although such an ideology is still predominant. Rather, the current unhinging of site specificity indicates new pressures upon its practice today – pressures engendered by both aesthetic imperatives and external historical determinants” (Kwon, 30-1).

What is this “unhinging” and what does it mean? If taken in a certain positive sense, a utopian-inflected sense, this unhinging leads to Noplaceness and its commitment to the celebration of a supposed postmodern fragmentation. Arguably, this functions as a re-uptake of the autonomous, siteless, and nomadic art object Kwon urges us to put pressure on. The works addressed here are certainly “unhinged” to a certain extent. They are certainly not installed in the places where their materials originated, but they are, in a sense, still tied to them. This could be said for many of the works Noplaceness uses to underpin its ideology. The work of the idea collection John Q for example: their work cannot be thought in terms of noplace. In their work Memory Flash, discussed in the book, the collective created a performative experience for the viewer of specific locations chosen for specific reasons.

Displacement and unhinging do not necessarily lead us to noplace. It is unclear to me how Noplaceness situates itself in relation to the concept of non-place, re: Marc Augé’s Non-Places: An Introduction to Supermodernity. This could make for a different conversation altogether. Sure, we are “no longer secure in our identity or sense of home,” (Noplaceness, 53) but this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t keep considering what place is.

Kwon writes that the “drive toward a rationalized universal civilization, engendering the homogenization of places and the erasure of cultural” is what has led to critical regionalism, a postmodern architectural practice developed by Kenneth Frampton and included in the seminal postmodern text The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, which proposes to cultivate “diverse local particularities” (157). Kwon is quick to point to the problem of nostalgia for place, however, and I would agree.

Many of the artists mentioned in this article use the word “nostalgia” in talking about their work. It is not always clear how they approach the term at times. In taking Kwon’s suggestion to consider the dialectics of place, à la Henri Lefebvre, maybe the works here serve as one pole of the dialectic. These works force us to consider the multiple layers of place: space, location, culture, environment, inhabitants, etc. We have to struggle with our own dialectical battles of nostalgia and futurity; location and dislocation; loss and gain. In regards to this dialectic, it would be too easy to get caught up in a circular conversation concerning authenticity; a conversation that I think undergirds the claims made in Noplaceness; paradoxically it has to rely on an originary authenticity in order to dislocate it. If we start from a fundamental sense of unhinging, however, we are able to traverse the notions of the definite and locatable with all their complexities. If a generic Starbucks in Atlanta “which is indistinguishable from a Starbucks in Singapore or Paris,” (Noplaceness, 3) for whatever reason seems liberating, I think we’ve found ourselves in a very strange place indeed.

Going Underground to Find New Ground: Atlanta-Based Collective and Caving as Practice

February 27, 2014 · Print This Article

Descending Into the Cave

On January 11, 2014, I rode an elevator down into a cave, one that contains the underground spectacle Ruby Falls – a waterfall lit by color changing lights and epic Muzak you might find accompanying the timed water spurts of a fountain in Disney World. I was invited to participate in this cave excursion of the hyperreal by the Atlanta-based collective that started the project Speleogen – a project that calls itself The New Cave Art. This trip was meant to engage members of the Atlanta community in an exercise of perception and attention.

From right: David Matysiak, Gary Brown, Kara Wickman, Nghi Duong, Devin Brown, Meredith Kooi, Lear Bunda, Cathy Brown, Meta Gary, Chelsea Weyler, Mason Brown. Image courtesy of Speleogen.

From right: David Matysiak, Gary Brown, Kara Wickman, Nghi Duong, Devin Brown, Meredith Kooi, Lear Bunda, Cathy Brown, Meta Gary, Chelsea Weyler, Mason Brown. Image courtesy of Speleogen.

The collective, and thus Speleogen, was founded by a group of musicians, and this rootedness in the music community is an important aspect of the collective’s projects and ways of working. They have recently started multiple projects, however, for the space of this piece, I’m going to only address specifically the one involving caves, Speleogen. Though Speleogen centers itself on caves, the impetus to start the project came out of a greater desire to work collaboratively and engage in artistic practices that Atlanta doesn’t always offer. In a conversation with Speleogen’s founders Devin Brown, Mason Brown (no relation), and David Matysiak, they noted that what initially led them to explore various structures of collaboration was due to their frustrations with the way musicians are generally pigeonholed into certain roles, times, and spaces. They realized that often this assigning is done by the musician him/herself; there is a certain complicity with the system as it stands. Apart from this structure, they also voiced concerns about the disconnect between Atlanta’s art and music communities. They are interested in the ways in which projects that are considered “music” are accepted (or not) or presented (or not) within an art context and vice versa. Thus, part of the goal Speleogen hopes to achieve is providing an environment that doesn’t fix people into specific and static roles. Speleogen says that they are seeking for artists/makers/scientists/musicians/etc/etc to imagine new possibilities and collaborate with each other in order to actualize those possibilities.

For its founders and many of its members, collaborating is like second nature. Many of them have played in bands with each other over the years and this informs the ways they work together, play off of each other, and establish certain tentative working “roles” within the group. Devin stresses the fact that “there isn’t a singular artist in this kind of configuration.” The concept surrounding the working environment that Speleogen proposes is a kind of autopoietic sort of “collaboratory” work that attempts to create its own world that inherently collaborates with itself. Part of the reason why the project takes on a sort of autopoietic, self-sustaining structure is because of the concerns mentioned above (i.e., fixed musician roles, disconnect between various Atlanta making communities), but part of the reason may also be due to the exploratory stage the collective is still in. Apart from Speleogen proper, the group works on and produces many other projects including ROAM, a monthly podcast that solicits found sounds from musicians, chitchats, a performance project that uses crowd-sourced material pulled from online chats, text messages, and etc., Synaesthesia, a music performance that explores the relationship between sound and light, and Boating, their band along with Jordan Noel, who runs the label Coco Art. These other projects, though “headed” by various members of the collective (ROAM is David Matysiak, chitchats is Devin Brown with Michael Hessel-Mial (not a member of Speleogen, editor of the tumblr Internet Poetry), and Synaesthesia is Mason Brown with Ian Cone (also not a member of Speleogen), are still collective endeavors. Another reason that this group is relatively secluded also has to do with the nature of how art and music venues function in Atlanta. The city doesn’t open to outsiders easily and exploring new mediums if you’re not necessarily already known doesn’t necessarily seem like a possibility.

Speleogen Proper: Inside the Cave

Even though members of the project claim that essentially Speleogen’s methodology could be applied to any object/concept/topic, the place of the cave, the chosen focus of the group, with its particular materiality is an appropriate place to locate and situate Speleogen, and arguably the collective as a whole. Devin recounts that in the cave “you can only see as far as your headlamp shines” and that “all the terrain is treacherous” – an apt description of artistic practice in general; failure is always a possibility. This project is all about searching and experimenting. It’s not about creating a discrete object, the “monolithic product” that is the record or album. Rather, the group tends toward an ecology of production and “not scorched earth which [doesn’t] leave anything to come back to” which the production of a static album can do to its creators.

Descending by elevator into the depths of Ruby Falls. Photo by David Matysiak. Image courtesy of Speleogen.

Descending by elevator into the depths of Ruby Falls. Photo by David Matysiak. Image courtesy of Speleogen.

For Devin, his interest in Speleogen concerns social relations and collaboration themselves as the artwork. At this point in their process, it is uncertain where Speleogen falls in the spectrum of relational art and socially-engaged practices. Since their methodology implicitly illuminates the social structures of musical and artistic production and their dissemination, Speleogen might want to take a page out of Nicolas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics and the (maybe already dead horse) conversation surrounding this kind of artistic practice and see where that leads them. The crux of all of these projects is the structure the collective has created for itself, which enables them to hone their energies. As Mason Brown puts it, “once there’s a structure, you can do anything.”

It is striking that Speleogen chose to center itself on caves. Not only does the cave figure as a rich metaphorical space for imagination and incubation, but it also serves as a point of departure for conceptualizing collectivity and making. If we take Gregory Sholette’s work on the “dark matter” of the culture of artistic practice seriously in terms of cosmic relations, what happens to the underground caverns Speleogen inhabits? According to Sholette’s use of the astronomical and cosmological phenomenon of dark matter, most of the art world’s activities are “invisible” and essentially unaccounted for; resting outside mainstream institutions, these activities create the possibilities for other activities to come into visibility. If invisibility is taken simply in the case of Speleogen’s practices and goals, the dark underground space of the cave serves as an apt metaphor and location. David Matysiak stated during a conversation that part of the project is to (re)build a world, which coming from the subterranean space of the cave means that they are “starting from underground, not even ground level.” For this particular part, and for the collective more generally, this is important — the intent to build a world for artistic practices that does not rely on any already established foundation; the task is to create the very foundation that will serve as the ground. Speleogen chooses to inhabit the margins; whether this is due to lacking a particular knowledge of or interest in the Atlanta art scene is a question that may need to be asked.

Part of Speleogen involves the ritualistic and meditative. Because of the physical challenge involved in traversing caves, the caver’s particular embodiment becomes a site of reflection. What is interesting about the corporeal for Speleogen is how this experience translates into multimedia works that are, for the moment, only presented in a digital form. However, as I mentioned in my last article, even digital work is experienced by some body in some place at some time, an embodied being. What Speleogen has the opportunity to do is push these relationships of the embodied and the digital to new possibilities. One way they can do this is through sound, which for musicians, this is a primary material. Sound, being invisible and immaterial, pours through speakers into the listener’s ears, vibrating the membrane of the eardrum, causing the bones to move, translating waves into concretely experienced sounds that carry with them a particular sense. In a sense, Speleogen could provide the portal into a different sensible space by literally delving underground into a radically different landscape. Mason describes that experience “as going into an alternate world” which “once you’re in that world you think differently.” One obvious way to talk about entering the cave is through the metaphorics of the womb and the female body, and this is indeed something on the table, but putting too much weight into this structure could be too simplistic. Devin, David, and Mason all are aware of the problem of the figure of the male plunging into the depths of the earth. For them, the cave, serves as an incubator space where images (sound-images, moving-images, still-images, etc.) are produced, but as to whether this means created in the womb may be another discussion, which Luce Irigaray addresses in the section “Plato’s Hystera” in her book Speculum of the Other Woman. Unlike Plato’s Allegory of the Cave which quickly dismisses these images as mere artifice, Speleogen describes the images they produce in and from these caves as emanating from the caves themselves and become a way of connecting with others and “communing with old cave spirits.”

Re-Mixing and (Re)Building

If placed within the context of Nicolas Bourriaud’s observations in his book Postproduction concerning contemporary art practices that involve the figure of the re-mixing DJ, maybe the question of Speleogen’s relevance to contemporary art (and conversely, contemporary art’s relevance to Speleogen) becomes more clear. Though these conversations about re-mix and file sharing are not new to the Creative Commons community, Speleogen adds another topography to the existing focus of many projects. However, unlike, say GLI.TC/H, Speleogen is not necessarily interested in delving into these technologies as telecommunicative tools that inherently carry with them disruptions and breakages.

Ruby Falls. Photo by David Matysiak. Image courtesy of Speleogen.

Ruby Falls. Photo by David Matysiak. Image courtesy of Speleogen.

Because their focus is on sharing materials with each other and re-mixing “completed” works into new ones that then become material for further re-mix, the group is constantly moving as David states: “you give the idea a chance to grow the way it wants to grow … you’re just working on things, you’re always just playing with materials and it’s not about showing off at the end “Here we did it!” You’re always moving … encouraging people to walk with you.” This calls to mind Bourriaud’s claim in Postproduction that “the contemporary work of art does not position itself as the termination point of the “creative process” (a “finished product” to be contemplated) but as a site of navigation, a portal, a generator of activities” (19). Speleogen is concerned with carving out a space that enables them to keep on making; part of this space is left open to others – they encourage others to hop on board with them.

As I mentioned above, this ethos is not new to contemporary art. Chicago, for example, has the collective Temporary Services among others, a multitude of artist-run spaces, and strong Creative Commons and GLI.TC/H cultures. Atlanta is still picking up on these issues. Eyedrum, one of the venues/collectives that has been around for the longest, serves as a space for experimentation. MINT Gallery also attempts to open its doors to emerging artists and curators. There are also a few other artist run projects and spaces including Beep Beep and the Atlanta Zine Library. However, this Atlanta-based group is not interested in the institutionalization of their practice and is still figuring out the Atlanta landscape, which can feel at times quite closed.

To quote Bourriaud’s Postproduction again: “precariousness is at the center of a formal universe in which nothing is durable, everything is movement: the trajectory between two places is favored in relation to the place itself, and encounters are more important than the individuals who compose them” (49). Speleogen is still precarious. It is looking for its audience. It is looking for its space/place/location/situation. Considering that core members of Speleogen also work with each other on many other projects including projects mentioned above (Boating, ROAM, chitchats, and Synaesthesia), the method of working that fuels Speleogen also fuels these other projects, making these discrete projects porous to each other. These projects are all about play; as Devin states: “this is all play … everything is an opportunity to expand and riff.”

REMINDER: We Are Perceiving Bodies: Observations of Four Works on View in Atlanta

January 23, 2014 · Print This Article

In keeping with my interests and research in phenomenology and embodiment, this article addresses four disparate works that are currently on view in Atlanta. Drawn from four separate shows — Coloring and In Translation at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center (ACAC), Live Amateurs at MINT Gallery, and Gyun Hur – A System of Interiority at Get This! Gallery — these installations address and provoke bodily experience. Unlike the other works in these shows, other than possibly Anne Lindberg’s at ACAC, these works invite the viewer to inhabit the space they create. Each of these installation-based and -esque works instantiate a world within the particular gallery space. Broadly, these four pieces can be grouped into two categories: color fields/dimensions and bodily encounters. Rutherford Chang’s We Buy White Albums at ACAC and Gyun Hur’s A System of Interiority at Get This! both open to the viewer an experience of color. Jonathan Bouknight’s Two Dancers; One Carries the Weight of the Other at ACAC and Maggie Ginestra’s Angel of the Interior Heaven at MINT create moments of encounters with the human form, its materiality, and that of our own.

Traces of Color

In our everyday existence, our perception of color does not correspond to a geometrical color wheel. We do not necessarily examine the red of a fire truck when we see it wheeling towards us in our rear view mirror; rather, the red speaks to us, telling us to pull over, signaling to us that there is a fire, a situation, somewhere that needs to be tended to. In this confrontation with color, the pure red that exists as a particular wavelength does not concern us. The object, the red firetruck, exists as a phenomenon in our everyday being. Both Rutherford Chang’s and Gyun Hur’s installations create situations where objects are allowed to rest in their object-ness and our perception of their colors in their particularity are brought forth.

Rutherford Chang. "We Buy White Albums." 2006 - ongoing. Image courtesy the ACAC.

Rutherford Chang. “We Buy White Albums.” 2006 – ongoing. Image courtesy the ACAC.

In the case of Rutherford Chang’s installation We Buy White Albums, included in the show Coloring at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, the color white, which, depending on which theory of color and perception you choose, may not  be a color at all. Chang, in his use of a white object, exemplifies the ways in which bodies and objects collide, rub off on each other, imprint themselves upon the other. If white here is considered the gathering of all light on the spectrum, we can push the metaphorics of accumulation and negation; white as a manifestation of maybe both of these. By a process of collecting first-presses of the Beatles’ White Album, Chang presents us with cultural signifiers that have visibly and explicitly been shaped and affected by bodies. Though each of these vinyl covers is white and was released in 1968, the installation presents the viewer with a range of color, wear-and-tear. Some of the album covers have drawings on them. Some have stains and spills. Some have an exaggerated impression of the vinyl disc lying inside; years of pressure worn into the album sleeve. The wall installation, though not touchable, allows the arranged albums to resonate with touch; the fingertips “feel” the cover without touching it; the fingertips can sense those who have touched the album before. Apart from the wall are album bins that the viewer can sift through, allowing her to touch these objects with her own hands, connecting to the hands that have touched this very object before. The signs of history and others’ beings are traced, etched, scuffed, buffed, and impressed into these seemingly identical and mass-produced commodities. Accompanying the installation is an audio piece that is a layering of 100 copies of the songs from the White Album on top of each other, which illuminates the subtle differences between each of the albums; the “various scratches, dust, and differences in the pressing of the records.” [1] Even though these commodities are machine-made, the audio points to the object’s own materiality and the ways in which the body’s handling of them further affects their material conditions. In a way, Chang’s piece illuminates the ways in which, as Merleau-Ponty states, “each object … is the mirror of all others.” [2]

Gyun Hur. "A System of Interiority." 2013. Image author's own.

Gyun Hur. “A System of Interiority.” 2013. Image author’s own.

At Get This! Gallery, Gyun Hur’s new installation work A System of Interiority creates a constantly changing experience of color for the viewer through its use of multiple constructed layers. Built in an L-shape against two walls of the gallery, the work consists of a structure made of glass panes resting on columns of bricks with mirror panels connecting the glass to the cement floor. On top of the glass panels are three piles of hand-shredded silk flowers and powders in magenta, yellow, and orange. Underneath the glass panes, on the cement floor, is a ground of brown/black dirt and another material that sparkles. Above, a lighting system in three parts: a two-sided color-changing track, a standard can light, and a panel holding a grid of naked lightbulbs. This installation does not give itself easily to any vantage point; it requires exploration. Sitting on the ground at the vertex, the point where the two large glass panes converge, I witness the piles multiply in the mirrors against the back walls and those on the ground partially covered in dirt. Peering under the panes, into the dirt directly, a miniature landscape opens up that gives the illusion of a highway underpass; the stacked bricks transformed into concrete columns. The earthy brown contrasts with the black sparkles that reflect the lights above. The magenta, yellow, and orange piles, radiate color on top of the glass while the mirrors underneath them reflect other, more muted colors. The ways that the surfaces of glass, mirrors, piles of powders, and dirt reflect each other and the viewer, opening a field of tranparently-opaque relations, which according to Merleau-Ponty is a certain translucence: “The fully realized object is translucent.” [3] We delve into it in our perception of it, but only to a certain extent; not all of the object is perceptible at once; it hides something within itself.

Constructed Bodily Encounters

In our everyday experience, when we see bodies, we recognize them as human bodies like that of our own. However, Descartes (in)famously states in his Meditations of First Philosophy from 1641 that those bodies wearing hats and coats he views from his window could in fact not be human bodies at all: “But what do I see aside from hats and clothes, which could conceal automata?” [4] In art works that make use of the human body, particularly that of the living, breathing, fleshy human body, the problem becomes how to regard these bodies. Since they are part of a work of art, what is their status as objects of my gaze? Who are these people I am looking at? Is it ethical for me to gaze upon their forms? How should I contemplate them?

Jonathan Bouknight. Installation view of drawings component of "Two Dancers; One Carries the Weight of the Other." 2013-14. Image courtesy the ACAC.

Jonathan Bouknight. Installation view of drawings component of “Two Dancers; One Carries the Weight of the Other.” 2013-14. Image courtesy the ACAC.

Jonathan Bouknight’s installation, included in the show In Translation, also at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, consisting of a video monitor on one wall and five 7.5 ft tall drawings on the opposite wall, is a manifestation of the problematic experience of watching moving bodies and then viewing a seemingly static representation of them. The piece, part of Bouknight’s Gaze Series, the work’s process creates multiple possibilities of embodiment. The video depicts two dancers; a man and a woman, wearing grey – the woman in a grey top and shorts, the man in only grey shorts, bare-chested. The angle of the video, at first disorienting, allows the viewer to penetrate the space between these two bodies that are at times intermingled, at times only touching. The layers of drawings on 7.5 ft tall pieces of butcher paper gaze at this video. Each day of the exhibition, Bouknight works in the installation space and draws the video. In order to see the video, Bouknight has to turn his back to the drawings, thus making them blind contour. The drawings, made using black acrylic paint, have a movement all of their own. When focusing on the drawings, the audience is not able to see the video, and vice versa. This limited perception, intentionally created by the artist, allows the viewer to see each aspect of the work on its own – the drawings are not merely illustrations of the video. They are a layered exercise in line and movement. The viewer can lift one drawing to reveal more layers of drawings underneath. Each layer a manifestation of a particular viewing experience that is translated onto paper. Both these aspects of the work produce certain corporeal consciousness and affectivity. The layers of drawings bring about a similar weightiness that is felt when attending to the video of the two dancers; a play of movement, shifting arrangements, and physics enter into my own bones, muscles, and sinews.

Maggie Ginestra. Performance view of "Angels of the Interior." 2014. Image by Jill Frank courtesy of Ginestra.

Maggie Ginestra. Performance view of “Angel of the Interior Heaven.” 2014. Image by unknown photographer. Courtesy of artist.

At MINT Gallery, within the jam-packed show Live Amateurs, lives Maggie Ginestra’s performance and installation Angel of the Interior Heaven #s 1 – 4. A card table with four folding chairs surrounding it is in a back corner of the gallery. On the table is a plate of nibbled on cookies, cards, and hand-felted scarves. Now, these chairs are empty. They were complete with sitters at the opening on January 11, 2014. They will remain empty until the closing of Live Amateurs on February 7, 2014. During the first performance, the sitters, naked save the hand-felted scarves, conversed with each other over cards, cookies, and wine. Other than trips to the bathroom, these nudes remained inside a privately public space; audience members were onlookers except when sneaking a cookie. These bodies, so exposed to the viewer, yet also so distant, provoked otherworldly and mystical imagery. They might have been those gods sitting atop Mount Olympus watching the mortals below. However, these gods were not concerned with we mortals; they seemed indifferent to our presence. These performers, on display for us, elicited somatic responses. The viewer was faced with the decision to gaze — perhaps only a sidelong glance, a glance perhaps engendered in our gender. It was not necessarily the initial confrontation with the naked human form that created a moment of discomfort; something else in this arrangement blocked my gaze. Perhaps something related to the poetry Ginestra provides with the performance/installation: “For the angels of the more interior heaven are able to speak with men by means of spirits of the interior heaven, thus this is effected mediately.” (Emanuel Swedenborg, from The Spiritual Diary (1747). The terms “interior” and “mediately” being most important here. The gallery during an opening is usually an openly voyeuristic place: we gaze at the art on display and the other patrons that for the night share our space. But in this case, it was uncertain what my role here was: mere onlooker, voyeur, participant; there is an unease provoked by this ambiguity. Do these beings want me to interact with them? Am I supposed to serve as a sort of mediary between their internal space and their external surroundings? Or, do they want me just to leave them be? This is the moment of decision that I have to grapple with, which demands me to negotiate my bodily arrangement and positionality.

Return to Our Perceiving Flesh

Perceiving artwork is a bodily experience; the viewer is always perceiving the work from somewhere in some body, in some particular embodiment. This is not only true for installation work that more or less explicitly invites the viewer’s body into the scene, but also for paintings, digital work, and etc. In Heidegger’s essay “Origin of the Work of Art,” he describes a painting of peasant shoes made by Van Gogh as the creation of a particular world that we gain access to; we can imagine the possibilities of these shoes and the way they become equipment for the person wearing them. [5] I’m interested in how works are able to create new worlds for us to inhabit, on the micro scale — Chang quite literally creates the space of a record store in the gallery that we can peruse, though we always find the “same” record with every turn, and also on a macro scale — Ginestra’s “angels” trace out an almost ethereal world that we cautiously navigate. These installations make us hyperaware that in our viewing of them, we have to negotiate the space the works carve out and the other viewers’ bodies that are also present. In doing so, we are forced to return to our contoured, fleshy, perceiving bodies.

Jonathan Bouknight. Installation view of video component of "Two Dancers; One Carries the Weight of the Other." 2013-14. Image courtesy the ACAC.

Jonathan Bouknight. Installation view of video component of “Two Dancers; One Carries the Weight of the Other.” 2013. Image courtesy the ACAC.

Both In Translation and Coloring are on view at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center until March 8, 2014.

Live Amateurs is on view at MINT Gallery until the closing reception on February 7, 2014. Maggie Ginestra will stage another instantiation of Angel of the Interior Heaven during the closing reception from 7-11pm.

Gyun Hur’s A System of Interiority is on view at Get This! Gallery until March 1, 2014. The gallery will stay open until 7pm on Wednesdays in order to experience the light change to night in the installation.

Notes

[1] Rutherford Chang’s statement for Coloring.

[2] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Donald A. Landes (London and New York: Routledge, 2012), 71.

[3] Ibid.

[4] René Descartes, “Meditations on First Philosophy” [1641], trans. Donald Cress, in Philosophical Essays and Correspondence, ed. Roger Ariew (Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett, 2000), 112.

[5] Martin Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art,” in Basic Writings, ed. David Farrell Krell (New York: Harper, 1993).

 

Cosmic Images and Inner Realities: P. Seth Thompson’s “The Last One”

December 26, 2013 · Print This Article

Images: An Abridged History

This past semester I taught an undergraduate class at Emory University titled “Visual Studies: The Image.” Some of the questions the course focused on were: what is an image? what does it mean to make an image? how should we look at images? what do these images do to the way we think about the world? In a world saturated with images, I thought it important to encourage students to consider the long and complicated history of the image.

Just a few broad strokes to contextualize, a brief, abridged, and very limited history, a few mile markers:

5th century BC: Zeuxis and Parhassius engage in a painting contest. Zeuxis painted a scene of grapes. Birds, attempting to feed on them, flew into and pecked at the painting. Next up was Parhassius. Zeuxis demanded to see the painting that was hidden behind a curtain, but Parhassius revealed that the painting was in fact the curtain.  Parhassius wins: his painting of a curtain fooled Zeuxis, a fellow artist, while Zeuxis’ painting of grapes only fooled the birds. [1]

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave in Book XII of his Republic tells a story of prisoners who are trapped in a cave and have only known a play of shadows on the cave wall, created by puppets backlit by the cave fire. These shadows are their only reality. In the event that one of the prisoners leaves the cave, his eyes, blinded by the sun’s light, can’t deal with actual reality. He chooses to go back to the cave unless he is encouraged to remain outside of its depths. However, in Plato’s Timaeus, the origins of the cosmos is attributed to its being the image of the eternal paradigm; this is a materialization that is divine. [2]

Sacred texts of the Abrahamic religions describe the function of the image. We find that man is made in God’s image, but we should not worship false images, idols. Fast forward to 8th and 9th century Byzantium and the clashes over the status of the icon; a debate that finds its roots in Greek philosophy along with Christian theology. The image is either sacred, or it is false and should be destroyed. [3]

Then, consider the birth of photography in the 19th century and the rise of cinematic propaganda. Now, reality television, Instagram, and the space program. Or, “Charlie Rules the World”: Episode 8, Season 8 of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia – the Gang gets sucked into an online game and their distinctions between reality and fantasy, actuality and virtuality, blur.

 

Outer Space and the Domestic Television

Atlanta-based artist P. Seth Thompson’s show The Last One, which closes on December 30, 2013 at {Poem 88} in Atlanta’s West Midtown neighborhood, presents the viewer with the artist’s confrontations between reality and image, truth and fiction. Using science fiction as the portal, Thompson shows us the strange and close encounters we have with the images that in/form us.

The center piece of the show, the video An Event Cannot Have An End Time in the Past, is an exercise in memory, news media, scientific teleology, and disaster. Made using primarily the artist’s childhood home movies, the video’s layers reveal a space-scape that fill in the contours of the family’s bodies on screen. In an abrupt ending, we witness the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger explosion; its footage become home movie, entering the family’s domestic space on a screen that serves as the centerpiece for a living room. The sound, composed by Jon Ciliberto, takes the viewer on an ambient journey up to a transformative climax. As I finish this article, the TV program “How the Universe Works” on the Science Channel plays in the background at my friend’s mother’s home. I am here for Christmas. The lights of the Christmas tree bounce off the digitally rendered stardust and animated theaters of comet crashes, planetary orbits, and blackhole consumption. The TV viewer is informed of the Earth’s pending catastrophe; the Earth occupies a precarious position in the universe that is always on the precipice of doom.

P. Seth Thompson. "An Event Cannot Have an End Time in the Past." 2013. Courtesy of the artist.

P. Seth Thompson. “An Event Cannot Have an End Time in the Past.” 2013. Courtesy of the artist.

Thompson’s statement accompanying the show claims that he is “co-opt[ing] and challeng[ing] the images to underscore our complicity in the suspension of belief in the digital era.” [4] What is the “challenge” he is posing to images? What does the rhetoric of challenge mean in the context of the Challenger’s explosion? What has our fascination with images of space done for our understanding of our position in the world? The American space program, more rigorously tended to after the launch of the Soviet’s Sputnik, serves as an entryway into the ways in which images – both physical and mental – inform policy and American everyday life. In America’s determination to win the space race during the Cold War, where two major nations became images of themselves, what gets covered over? How do these images of space and nation converge to influence everyday realities?

Thompson’s addition of his photograph Niels Bohr Through the Looking Glass, points further to American policy and its way of navigating science. Bohr, a Danish physicist who received a Nobel Prize for his contributions to the research on the structure of atoms and quantum mechanics, was also involved with the Manhattan Project, the project that developed the atomic bomb during the Second World War. Not only is Bohr an interesting figure to include here, an important scientist and public presence, but it is also his theories of light – that is, the discovery that light behaves as both a particle and a wave – that are important to the show. Light, the essential factor in the production of photographs, is itself unstable.

P. Seth Thompson. "Niels Bohr Through the Looking Glass." 2012. Courtesy of the artist.

P. Seth Thompson. “Niels Bohr Through the Looking Glass.” 2012. Courtesy of the artist.

 

Reality’s Virtuality

Thompson states that “all we have is the world we create in our head, and if that’s not reality, then nothing is reality. We are left in a world of our own making and that is perfectly fine with me.” [5] Part of this statement may be a re-investment in the simulacrum, a concept made famously negative by Baudrillard [6]; a re-investment that I think needs to be seriously considered. In its Latin origins, the term “simulacrum” means merely similarity or likeness. This likeness, however, evolved to describe a likeness that is inferior, without substance. It is a likeness that does not have a model to fashion itself after. This substance-less image has the potential to open imaginative space, but in terms of a reality that only exists in our heads, I hesitate to fully jump into this spaceship. What does it mean to claim that all we have is what’s in our head? Going back further in time, is this a reclamation of philosopher René Descartes’ doubting of all things?

Descartes’ project, which was an attempt to discover the truly certain, rejected sensory experience because of its capability to deceive; the only certainty we have exists in the mind. This rejection of the corporeal led him, in his Meditations on First Philosophy, to reject physics (important to the premise of this particular exhibition), since it is a science based on corporeal nature; he turned instead to geometry. [7] Descartes’ dismissal of the body and the sensorial serves as the starting point for its own deconstruction in the project of phenomenology. For Edmund Husserl, the appearance is all we have and we must bracket out any notions of an underlying reality of the object. These appearances, taken as phenomenon, are images experienced in perception. They are both there for me as existing in my perception, but they also transcend my perception and are apart from me. These images can’t merely exist in my head; they have to have their own sort of actuality. [8]

 

Disintegrating Images

As I’ve mentioned above and in a previous article, [9] the image has been historically regarded as a dangerous falsity. It is not only not truth, but it is a danger to truth itself; it is only a shadow on the wall. Chris Marker’s short film that uses text from Plato’s Allegory of the Cave shows the potential danger of our fascination with cinema, a stance that Walter Benjamin writes of in his 1936 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” [10] Benjamin describes the way in which the film actor, in acting for the camera, uses “his whole living person, yet forgo[es] his aura” (229). This “self-alienation” opens the door for Fascism to render politics as an aesthetics (242).

Thompson’s layering and pixelation of the cinematic image exhibits a gesture of disintegration, not necessarily incorporation. What is the image disintegrating/dissolving into? Our collective imaginary? His photograph The Spaceman’s Disappearing Act, presents the viewer with an almost illegible image when viewed up close. However, when viewed from the side, the image reveals a person clad in a spacesuit. It is only from an oblique view that the spaceman reveals himself. In the Lacanian sense of anamorphosis, the viewer gazes upon the distorted image which conceals the Real and thus recognizes herself as the annihilated subject; she can’t be the privileged center. [11] She becomes aware of how she is seeing and therefore aware that she can be seen from such an angle. She is an image that can be perceived.

P. Seth Thompson. "The Spaceman's Disappearing Act." 2013. Courtesy of the artist.

P. Seth Thompson. “The Spaceman’s Disappearing Act.” 2013. Courtesy of the artist.

Outer Space, as the final frontier, serves as an extreme example of our fantasies. However, more “mundane” images fill in our memories and bodies. As I wrote about in a previous article, [12] Jill Frank’s photographs, comprising her series Romance, approach similar issues Thompson addresses, of the ways in which cinema inhabits our everyday lives. However, what we find in Frank’s work is the bodily mimicry of the viewed. The cinematic image, not registered itself on film, is instead registered through the bodies of the photographed subjects. The image has been acted out, performed, incorporated into everyday bodies.

The Last One offers actual and virtual disaster with sentimentality. Thompson references the hero’s journey, a theory proposed by Joseph Campbell that organizes quintessential heroic journey stories into a definitive structure. The structure, formulated for the traveling male, is a formalization of the relationship between constructed narrative, everyday life, and mythology. This constructed narrative enables the space program and therefore constituted the situation in which the Challenger catastrophe, witnessed through the media, could occur. What happens when disaster is sentimentalized in the domestic sphere? The images in The Last One may occupy an oppositional pole to Warhol’s works on disaster, car crashes, and American violence. Warhol shows the viewer news media coverage of American disasters without sentimentality. They are cold and alienating. In a sense, Thompson’s works invite the viewer to engage with them in a way that bring her into the narrative fold. However, the danger here is that she can get too comfortable. The question becomes: in our everyday lives lived in the midst of disaster and violence, how do we navigate these images surrounding us in a way that simultaneously connects to and disengages from them?

 

Notes:

[1] Pliny the Elder, Natural History, Book 35, Chapter 36

[2] Plato, Republic; and Plato, Timaeus 

[3] See for example, Alain Besançon, The Forbidden Image: An Intellectual History of Iconoclasm, translated by Jane Marie Todd (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2000); Gerhart B. Ladner, “The Concept of the Image in the Greek Fathers and the Byzantine Iconoclastic Controversy,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers, vol. 7 (1953): 1 – 34; and Marie-José Mondzain, Image, Icon, Economy: The Byzantine Origins of the Contemporary Imaginary, translated by Rico Franses (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005).

[4] Statement for The Last One, http://www.poem88.net/p_seth_thompson_slide-2013.html

[5] Ibid.

[6] Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, translated by Sheila Faria Glaser (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1995).

[7] René Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy [1641], translated by Donald Cress, in Philosophical Essays and Correspondence, edited by Roger Ariew (Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett Publishing, 2000): 97 – 141.

[8] Edmund Husserl, Cartesian Meditations: An Introduction to Phenomenology [1931], translated by Dorion Cairns (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1999).

[8] Meredith Kooi, “James Turrell’s Cave and the Unveiling Truth,” Bad at Sports (October 24, 2013), http://badatsports.com/2013/james-turrells-cave-and-the-unveiling-truth/.

[9] Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in Illuminations, edited by Hannah Arendt, translated by Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1977): 217 – 252.

[10] Jacques Lacan, “Anamorphosis,” in The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, Vol. XI, translated by Alan Sheridan (New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1998): 79 – 90.

[11] Meredith Kooi, “The ‘Celluloid Self’ and Spaces of Feminine Performativity,” Bad at Sports (Sept 26, 2013), http://badatsports.com/2013/the-celluloid-self-and-spaces-of-feminine-performativity/.

James Turrell’s Cave and the Unveiling Truth

October 24, 2013 · Print This Article

Into Light

James Turrell‘s work has been everywhere recently. A retrospective of his at the Guggenheim just came down last month. A major retrospective of his work, James Turrell: A Retrospective is up at LACMA.  Other exhibitions include: James Turrell: The Light Inside at Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Sooner Than Later, Roden Crater at Kayne Griffin Corcoran Gallery in LA; James Turrell at Almine Rech Gallery in Paris; James Turrell Perspectives at the Art Academy Museum, Easton Maryland; and Roden Crater and Autonomous Structures at Pace Gallery in New York – these are all from 2013. The year prior, the exhibition Phenomenal: California Light, Space, Surface was up at Museum Contemporary Art San Diego. This enormous retrospective spanning 3 major institutions (Guggenheim, LACMA, and Museum of Fine Arts Houston) and 92,000 sq. feet may have arrived at a fitting time. [1] What can we say about the experiences he creates for us and what does that mean for our world?

Martin Heidegger, the enormously influential 20th century continental philosopher, writes in his essay “The Origin of the Work of Art,” that “to be a work means to set up a world.” [2] At first blush, this statement seems to coincide with the work that Turrell provides for us as viewer. Then, the question becomes: what is a world, the world? For Heidegger, world is not just an accumulation of objects that exist in the world, a totality of beings, nor is it merely the “region” where these beings exist. Rather, Heidegger defines world as where a being whose being is of concern for it, Dasein, lives as Dasein. This world has various possibilities including that of “public” world and one’s “own” world. [3] These questions of world are significant to Turrell’s works. How do his installations world a world for us? Further, what is the relationship of his works to truth? Do his works enable us to gain access to truth of this world?

It may seem dry to delve into an examination of Turrell’s installation work in terms of Heidegger, but that this may be a moment where the particular issues surrounding worldliness and truth should be addressed instead of the oft discussed perception, reality, and illusion themes. Turrell’s work, whose material is that of light, space, and perception, can be easily read as illusion, that the works merely play with the frailty or faultiness of human perception. However, this cannot and should not be the main theme we grasp onto. Experiencing his work opens up the perceptual space that allows us to examine our being-in-the-world and our relational condition. What I’d like to argue briefly is that Turrell’s works, particularly the early Projection Pieces, create situations of veiling and unveiling, which for Heidegger are tantamount to discovering and truth. These pieces, in their perceptual complexities, point to our relational nature, our being as Dasein.

James Turrell. Afrum (White). 1967. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum Collection. http://www.guggenheim.org/new-york/collections/collection-online/artwork/4084

Light Explained Away

In a general survey of the literature on Turrell, there are multiple mentions of perceptual psychology and phenomenology, with perceptual psychology, considered as science, taking precedence. When phenomenology is referenced, only Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Edmund Husserl are addressed. Martin Heidegger, a student of Husserl and a major figure in philosophical phenomenology is generally left out of these discussions.  Instead of grounding Turrell’s work in the ontological foundation of Being, his work seems to be merely referenced as influenced by phenomenology, particularly of Merleau-Ponty. Turrell’s work, however, can’t just be taken as a product of phenomenology influence; his work participates in the  exploration of this philosophy as it relates to our existential being, our being-in-the-world as Dasein, translated literally as being there.

In Heidegger’s Being and Time, he attempts to tackle the problem of being, of ontology. He says that in order to address this question, we first need to establish who is asking the question. This being is Dasein, the being whose being is of concern for her. Closing Division I of the book — “The Preparatory Fundamental Analysis of Dasein” — is §44, “Dasein, Disclosedness, and Truth.” In this section, he lays out the traditional concept of truth, which relies on the statement’s being in agreement with the object in the world that is external to us, and proposes a more primordial theory of truth which is unconcealing, or in Greek, ἀλήθεια. This formulation of truth as an unveiling, uncovering, unconcealing, depends upon Dasein; fundamentally, truth depends on the being whose being is of concern for it. He does warn, though, that this is not an arbitrary subjectivism. [4]

Before analyzing Turrell’s work, especially Afrum (White), 1967 in relation to Heidegger’s theory of truth, allow me to briefly outline a couple of terms: phenomenon, semblance, appearance.

Heidegger describes phenomenon as “what shows itself in itself,” which is distinct from both semblance (the possibility of beings showing themselves as not themselves) and appearance (“something which does not show itself announces itself through something that does show itself”). [5] These are all made possible, however, by light, illumination: “‘phenomena,’ are thus the totality of what lies in the light of day or can be brought to light.” [6]

In Being and Time, the figure of light takes on the meaning of Dasein’s coming into disclosedness. Heidegger states that

“To say that it is “illuminated” means that it is cleared in itself as being-in-the-world, not by another being, but in such a way that it is itself the clearing [Lichtung]. Only for a being thus cleared existentially do objectively present things become possible in the light or concealed in darkness.” [7]

In his marginal notes, the first “cleared” is marked with an asterisk, which adds “ἀλήθεια — openness — clearing, light, shining.” [8]  Important to this discussion of light is the notion of “radiance” which figures prominently in Heidegger’s essay that appeared ten years after Being and Time, “The Origin of the Work of Art.” Radiance here entails a shining forth or an emanation, something in excess. [9]  Taken in relation to Turrell’s work, his light becomes excessive; it points to its own immaterial limitations, a gesture that pushes us to consider the betweenness and limitations of being. Andrew Mitchell discusses this betweenness that arises in Heidegger’s examinations of Ernst Barlach’s sculpture: “Being takes place between presence and absence, at the surface where the being extends beyond itself and enters the world. Being takes place at the limit of the thing — understanding limit as Heidegger does, not as where something ends but where it begins.” [10]

In the case of Turrell’s Afrum (White), how do these terms of phenomenon, semblance, and appearance function? Where does illusion factor in? What of the truth in the perceptual experience? What about the spatial relations of the between and the limit? Many of these questions that Turrell’s work poses get addressed through phenomenology, but, as mentioned above, it is normally that of Merleau-Ponty and Husserl. There is an easy case for these two phenomenologists, particularly Merleau-Ponty because of his explicit focus on the corporeality of perception and experience, which can easily address the structure of perceiving Turrell’s installations. Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception allows for the human body to actively participate in our experience and knowledge of the world. This sentiment echoes in Turrell’s reply to the question: “Are your works primarily visual experiences for the person who visits the space, not translations of your experiences?”:

“Yes. Of course, it takes somebody’s vision to have set that up, so the artist does create and limit the universe of possibilities, and within that you’re on your own. In that sense it is like any other art. But it does demand a certain decision to deal with it, which is this art’s price of admission. But every art, I feel, has a price of admission, and often many people don’t pay it.  They end up looking at the work rather than into it. I think that’s the biggest problem with contemporary art for a large portion of America. America hasn’t learned it has to pay the price of admission, to look into it rather than just at it.” [11]

Something more may need to be accounted for, however. Is it a matter of what we can know about our experience or what we can discover about our being? Heidegger’s ontological project, which may always be on the verge of falling into a metaphysics, should still remain an important aspect of our questions about art and experience. What we may need to consider when experiencing these installations is that they create conditions for Dasein’s disclosedness. The installations don’t just make us aware of the mechanics of perception, they make us aware of our being-in-the-world. The method of phenomenology leads us to ontological distinctions, and these distinctions shouldn’t be ignored.

 

James Turrell. Aten Reign. 2013.

James Turrell. Aten Reign. 2013.

The Truth in Illusion

Dawna Schuld, along with many other critics, talk about Turrell’s Afrum (White) as illusion; Schuld even juxtaposes the piece to the famous Necker Cube, the line drawing of a cube that switches orientations. In her essay for Phenomenal: California Light, Space, Surface, “Practically Nothing: Light, Space, and the Pragmatics of Phenomenology,” she describes the perceptual experiences Turrell creates for the viewer in Acton (1976) and Afrum (White):

“What follows is the delightful awareness that one can return to the illusion simply by repositioning one’s body vis-à-vis the sensing space. This ability to consciously hold perception in flux is also a characteristic of many of Turrell’s projection pieces, notably the Afrum “cube,” which like a Necker illusion can be cognitively manipulated to invert into its corner or revert into a projected cube that juts out toward us, while with a step to the left or the right it “rotates.” Not one interpretation achieves primacy.” [12]

Further, she claims that “[t]he intentional object is no longer the image on the wall but rather the ways in which we can manipulate our own perceptual mechanisms, within given circumstances.” [13]  Though operative in the works, these claims keep us with the intentional structure of perception Husserl develops, which differ for Heidegger. In viewing Turrell’s work, it is a being-toward, not necessarily a manipulation. Manipulation brings with it the structure of power and control, which isn’t the same thing as unconcealing through the disclosedness of Dasein.

Nancy Marmer’s 1981 review of Turrell’s exhibition at the Whitney, James Turrell: Light and Space, focuses on the “chilling art of deception” which is Turrell’s “more rigorous, even didactic, aspect to [his work] that tends to be ignored.” [14]  This attention to illusion or deception isn’t specific to Marmer. From that same year, Wolfgang Zimmer’s review in ARTnews is titled “Now You See It, Now You…” [15]  This is important. Questions about being and truth are glossed over when the work is only described as illusion and deception, simple plays of perception. This is too simplistic to fully describe Turrell’s work. Rather, it is the interplay of appearance, semblance, and phenomenon (in Heidegger’s sense: of something showing itself from itself in itself). It is not a simple either/or situation, where you either see the illusion, or the “true” material conditions of the piece. The totality of this situation of being-with the piece is the truth of the work, its unconcealedness in the disclosure of Dasein, our being as being-in-the-world.

Turrell claims that “he is not trying to fool the viewer.” [16]  Craig Adcock references Turrell’s rejection of “illusion” to describe his work quoting Turrell: “People have talked about illusion in my work, but I don’t feel it is an illusion because what you see alludes to what in fact it really is — a space where the light is markedly different.” [17] This statement may coincide with one of Heidegger’s from the work of art essay, that the “work lets the earth be earth,” earth here meaning foundation of world that is not merely matter. [18]  Afrum (White) doesn’t merely point to the way our perception may trick us, it instead opens up world as worldliness. In the measurement or, shall I say, rational description of Turrell’s works, the work disappears. Only in remaining concealed as a totality can it allow for the disclosure of Dasein as being-in-the-world: “Color shines and wants only to shine. When we analyze it in rational terms by measuring its wavelengths, it is gone. It shows itself only when it remains undisclosed and unexplained.” [19]

James Turrell. Aten Reign. 2013.

James Turrell. Aten Reign. 2013.

In a world where government shuts down and the NSA surveils our telecommunications because everyone is dissembling as a terrorist, what does it mean for us to consider the unveiling of the world? What is the relationship between surveil and unveil? The surveil, the on top of the veil, still maintains the veil of concealedness. Information-gathering does not get us any closer to truth. Maybe it’s time to think of other ways to be in the world. Dancing with the projected light in the corner of the gallery allows me to experience the work of Afrum (White), with work meaning the “setting forth,” which entails a setting to work of truth. I move around the piece, seeing it this way, seeing it that way. It clears the space for my being as a being in this space with this light and with these others that are also in this space with me. I am in this gallery, in this museum, in this city, in this country, in this world, choosing to move with this lighted corner that has unveiled itself as a work of art. Is this choice a narcissism or a solipsism? A nihilism? I would argue no; my perceptual experience with this work has to involve all others that participated in its making and those that are viewing it alongside me.

In the atrium of the Guggenheim, Turrell’s Aten Reign, encourages us to sit together and decide upon the truth of what we are experiencing. This work has drawn some highly critical reception, comparing it poorly to the collective experience of Olafur Eliasson’s The weather project for example. What both of these projects offer us is the sun, the ability to sit and stare at the sun, the light that burns us. “Aten” of Aten Reign, is Aten, or Aton, the highly controversial Egyptian god of the sun and refers to the disk/orb of the sun itself. This reference to the sun brings us to another important aspect of Turrell’s work: his references to the Allegory of the Cave in Plato’s Republic. In this allegory, prisoners are trapped in a cave and can only see objects of the world as shadows on the cave wall — puppets backlit by fire controlled by puppeteers. If a prisoner is set free, her first experience of the true sun beyond the darkness of the cave is so overpowering and blinding that “he [sic] will suffer sharp pains; the glare will distress [him], and he [sic] will be unable to see the realities of which in his [sic] former state he [sic] had seen the shadow.” [20] This pain makes the prisoner turn away and seek refuge back in the cave where the shadows are more familiar.

What Aten Reign may give us is the space to look into the light without pain. It is a foggy light and may dissemble with its changing colors, but it shows itself in such a way that maybe we can spend the necessary time with it in order to let in unveil itself. Turrell may, in a sense, occupy the position of the puppeteer, but he also opens the opportunity for us to look at the blinding light. One could argue that his skyspaces do this better, and that may be true, but they are also indirect gazes at the sun.

I secretly took a photograph of the installation (I know I wasn’t supposed to). Only later did I realize that a thin veneer of dust and grime had covered the camera lens on my phone. The image that I have of this experience of mine is blurry, foggy, a hazy memory that prompts me to consider what it was that I really experienced.

 

Notes

[1] Wil S. Hilton, “How James Turrell Knocked the Art World Off Its Feet,” New York Times, (June 13, 2013), 1: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/16/magazine/how-james-turrell-knocked-the-art-world-off-its-feet.html

[2] Martin Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art,” in Basic Writings, ed. David Farrell Krell (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1993), 170.

[3] Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. Joan Stambaugh with revisions by Dennis J. Schmidt (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2010), 65.

[4] Ibid., 227.

[5] Ibid., 28-29.

[6] Ibid., 28.

[7] Ibid., 133.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Andrew Mitchell, Heidegger Among the Sculptors: Body, Space, and the Art of Dwelling (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010),10.

[10] Ibid., 23.

[11] Richard Andrews, James Turrell: Sensing Space (Seattle: Henry Gallery Association, 1992), 37.

[12] Dawna Schuld, “Practically Nothing: Light, Space, and the Pragmatics of Phenomenology,” in Robin Clark (ed.), Phenomenal: California Light, Space, Surface (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2011), 116-118.

[13] Ibid., 118.

[14] Nancy Marmer, “James Turrell: The Art of Deception,” Art in America, vol. 69 (May 1981), 97.

[15] Wolfgang Zimmer, “Now you see it, Now you…,” ARTnews, vol. 80 (Feb 1981): 225.

[16] Craig Adcock, James Turrell: The Art of Light and Space (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1990), 12.

[17] Turrell interview with Julia Brown in Occluded Front, James Turrell, quoted in Adcock, 13.

[18] Heidegger, “Work of Art,” 172.

[19] Ibid., 172.

[20] Plato, Republic, Book VII, lines 515