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Suvan Geer


Back in April the Los Angeles Times ran a story about a Toronto Sex Crime Unit that is looking for leads on a certain internet child pornographer. What struck me as particularly haunting about the story were the accompanying pictures. They were images from the kiddy pornographer’s mailings that had been digitally altered by the police in order to remove the young girl’s body and hopefully protect her safety. What was left to see was an array of empty, bland hotel rooms, a seemingly vacant arcade ride, a fountain, and an empty public elevator. Each aimed at soliciting information on the specific location where the abuse occurred in hopes of finding the criminal.

“The Toronto Sex Crimes Unit digitally
removed the child victim from photos
hoping that the public could help
identify the crime scenes. It worked.”
- L.A. Times, 04/27/05.

There was something about the slight digital smear of mushy, re-configured pattern on the floral bedspread in the vague shape of a body that struck me as particularly intense. It was an unforgettable photograph that was utterly unremarkable to look at. As photos of generic rooms each of these pictures was arresting, not because of what was displayed, but because of what was visibly missing. The emptied images echoed with the almost tangible frustration of detectives forced to play a cat and mouse game of look but don’t see to get clues, but also, admittedly, with my own thwarted desire to view something of the victim’s face. What I might have read from the young girl’s eyes was unclear, but the need created by the emptied images to see her face was still powerful.

In truth, all the Toronto Crime Stoppers images struck me as incredible blanks. Despite their photographic veracity they revealed almost nothing. The victim, the criminal, the crime, the locale and time were all absent yet absolutely vital to what we were looking at and what it meant. The poignant vacuum that was created around the image got me thinking about the way artists use vacancy to see, summon or represent the elusive, unseeable but still real and important parts of human experience.

Emilie Halpern, “Kiss,”
2001, C-print, 16 x 20”.
Courtesy Anna Helwing Gallery.
I was reminded in particular of the emotionally dense yet apparently straightforward photos and video work of Los Angeles artist Emilie Halpern. She makes beautiful, color saturated images of totally mundane things like ice cubes floating in a blue haze or wilting flowers in an outstretched hand. While her images of these unremarkable things are lovely to look at, like the Crime Stoppers photographs it is often what is absent from them that makes the images resonate. Her photo of a mingled pool of two lovers spit on a dark table leaves out their bodies yet summons us to think of them in the disturbing terms of bacteria or disease.

The short video “Luna” shows the artist gently kissing the wing of a huge and gorgeous, live night moth as it lays lethargically sprawled on a wall during the day. To watch her kiss the slumbering insect’s outstretched wing is to feel all the wonder and inherent reverence of that gesture. Absent from the image but available elsewhere is the information that a touch to the wing’s fragile surface can rob the moth of its ability to fly and so make it incapable of mating. It is that knowledge that unmakes the tender kiss and reveals instead a covert act of sexualized violence.

Art that uses absence to shift our perception from the apparent meaning of the scene presented to another that is also real, but outside the visual arena puts us in touch with what is most elusive in human experience. Such work begs us to consider the implications and impact of things not readily visible, and so hints at an entire world nesting within our seemingly solid touch-it, see-it reality. A world that we are unwittingly shaping or being influenced by and so deserves attention.

It is that kind of reorientation that makes Mungo Thomson’s videos and objects such pensively funny and subversive art works. His recent showing at the University Art Museum at CSU Long Beach included an empty room and a pair of Bose speakers spewing the sound recordings he had made of the verbal chatter at the openings of MOCA and LACMA’s simultaneous 2004 Minimalist Art surveys. In part, the piece was amusing because the physical emptiness of the room parodied the reductive Minimalist methodologies used by those artists in pursuit of art’s intangible “aura”. But by absenting the art completely and leaving us only a flurry of indecipherable conversations about it to represent the exhibits. Thompson suggests that the words spoken about the works may well constitute art’s real aura.

Thomson’s short looping film clip called “The Swordsman” extended his prodding of art’s aura of authenticity and originality into film by leaving out the movie altogether and focusing instead on one small fragment from its peripheral construction. The clip shows a “master” sword handler expertly throwing a prop sword to an unseen actor on-scene. Our view is minus all the movie magic; the set, costumes, music, plot. The only view we have is of a very ordinary older man, dressed in shirt sleeves, on a lawn, making a prop pass on cue. It’s a repetitive bit of arcane film information, a view from outside the fictional space of the film that by its very banality reveals the fundamental hollowness and artificiality of the camera’s much revered penetrating gaze.

Mungo Thomson, “Cinema
Concepts,” 2003, installation shot.
Courtesy CSU Long Beach.

Thomson’s art evokes and then shadowboxes with the assumptions and attitudes of our visual art culture. Gabriel Orozco’s art exposes the equally vague but no less pervasive basic theories we hold about the way things should work, and the disembodied structures of mundane reality. An elevator car removed from its shaft becomes an incredibly heavy steel room at odds with its new open doors and loss of purpose; a ping pong table with four playing sides opens unexpectedly beyond the net into a square void that is also a lotus-filled pond, a vacancy that replaces the normally narrow options of action or play with a new “living” space that allows spectators to participate in redefining the game’s rules.

Gabriel Orozco, “Elevator,” 1994,
found object. Courtesy Museum
of Contemporary Art (MOCA).

Gabriel Orozco, “Empty Shoe Box,”
1993, cibachrome, 16 x 20".
Just as the newspaper’s altered police photographs made me think about what was visually missing, or could not be shown and then what those absences implied, Orozco’s eclectic objects and photographs often make me think about the intangible things his vacancies imply. “Empty Shoe Box” is a photograph of an unmarked, white cardboard box with a deep red interior that is sitting on a white, unevenly spray painted ground. The fact that there is nothing in the box and nothing of interest in the photograph except the blood red interior makes it an image ripe with expectation.

The vacancy of Orozco’s “Empty Shoe Box” ode to unnamed expectation is a lot like the Toronto Crime Lab’s altered photos. The visual absence each presents creates an important kind of space, a visual gap that waits openly, expectantly for the spectator to complete the meaning. In so many ways, I’ve come to realize, it is that pregnant space of thought, discovery and reflection that ultimately keeps me making art and writing about it.