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Suvan Geer


Recently I was at the Hammer Museum listening as Ann Hamilton talked about her haunting, sensory rich installations with writer and curator-at-large for the Whitney Museum of American Art, Joan Simon. At the end, to a question from the audience asking about the politics of her work, Ann responded only briefly but enthusiastically that her work’s focus on creating body-related experience was an essential and very necessary act of engagement in a world as mediated as this one.

Ann Hamilton, “tower,” IMG
series, opened in 2007,
Photo credit: Lynne  Hayes

Sophie Calle, “Pas Pu Saisir
la Mort," 2007, video still.
I don’t know whether it was her unexpected response to the word political, or her casual assertion that art made for sensory experience was a cultural necessity that caught my attention. But her focus on the body and the politics of direct experience made me begin asking questions. It has long been clear to me that acts of hearing, seeing, smelling, feeling, tasting etc. are strangely adrift in a culture besotted with virtual reality, and saturated with media and spectatorship. What is real to the senses in a world of electronic books and computer bred dating, where marriages and survival are presented as TV contests?  What is really true when images can appropriate every building, screen, floor or body surface available into a swift commercial message, or where the veracity of movie catastrophes make the real thing seem cinematic and taped replays of real time events can run for months?

Thinking of mediated experience and art what immediately came to mind was a piece of art by Sophie Calle at this year’s Venice Biennale in the Italian pavilion. The work consists of a small room at the entry of which is a wall text describing how on the same day that the artist received word she was accepted to the Biennale she also heard that her mother was dying.  It goes on to very simply describe her mother’s last months and some of her regrets, including that she would not be able to see her daughter’s work in Italy. In the next room is a small video, shot with a fixed camera, of her mother on her deathbed in the last moments of her life. It’s all very peaceful. Her mother is so still that only the attendant’s hands reaching in occasionally to check pulse and breathing betray that a life that is slipping away before the camera.  One of her mother’s favorite Mozart Concertos plays in the background. After her passing, it’s all very mundane; things are collected and put away, the screen fades to black.
There is something incredibly powerful and very disturbing about this work. In our world of simulated realities, taped ‘live’ recordings and undeclared fictions, Calle has presented us with something that is not only actual and true, but the ultimate of life’s realities: it’s ending. Death is a momentous subject. But it’s made even more forceful here, despite the quietness of the image, because not only do we watch it happening, we know what we are seeing is not a fiction. We also know that this is the artist’s mother, and that knowledge binds us in a kind of intimacy to the fact of this one woman’s death.
At the same time, because it was indeed real, the video’s public presentation--as something to be watched by strangers in an art show--makes us consider, as does much of Calle’s surveillance-based art, what the making of art or life in which detached experience or image occur. Art can elevate its subject; raise it to a level of consciousness or visibility, or expand on its meaning. But, given the inherent magnitude in watching someone’s mother draw a last breath, Calle’s straightforward filming and dissemination of this video has the reverse effect. Sharing such a singular, private moment so freely and repeatedly, has about it the same aura of voyeuristic entertainment that clings to the streams of real-life video currently being broadcast by ‘lifecasters’ who record every moment of their daily lives and share it all with whoever wants to log on and watch.  Subtly and with great insight Calle’s dissemination of deathbed-witness footage turns the reality of death, her mother’s death to boot, into spectacle.

Frankly I find that insightful and courageous but also appalling. This is in part because the shift from a profoundly personal experience to distancing image is accomplished so easily, but also because the artist chose to visually co-opt such a private and singular event in order to make a point.  Significantly however, her presentation, while cited for being quite moving by critics and viewers, has not elicited even a whiff of shock or even comment. More than anything else that fact underlines for me the level of passive acceptance we have to the violence media does to an image’s altered meaning in a culture soaking in inaccessible realities that are impossible to interact with.
In his influential volume, “The Society of the Spectacle”, Guy Debord made clear that there is a certain kind of passivity and emotional remove that blankets a culture by its constant immersion in purely visual appearances. In pondering Hamilton’s emphasis on the necessity of body-related experience in breaking down that malaise of unconscious visual reception, my mind turned to Charles Ray’s most recent sculpture, “Hinoki.” There is something in many of his pieces, and in particular this work’s presentation of death’s reality as an abstracted, representational-sign, that pulls strenuously against that cultural sense of distance.

Author Guy Debord

Charles Ray,
"Hinoki," 1998-2007,
Japanese cypress, 68 x 382 x 240".
Photo courtesy the Los Angeles Times.

Hinoki” is a life sized thirty-foot long, carved wooden replica of a fallen, broken and hollow rotted tree, the original of which the artist discovered in a California vineyard.  Typical of Ray’s devotion to investigations into the representational appearances of reality, the sculpture is an accurate and incredibly detailed copy of the original. But it is also quite noticeably a copy, visibly marked inside and out by dovetailed joints and the deep, careful scraping of the Japanese woodworker’s tools used in shaping the form. As such it speaks distinctly about the act of replicating reality via the direct touch of the hand. Because that touch is not mechanical the sculpture embodies the five year labor it took to make. That lengthy engagement, as an act of creation inextricably wedded to reproducing the appearance of a tree’s rotting corpse makes the reality before us spin in its meaning.  But our encounter with the physicality of the sculpture takes it even further.

As you walk around Ray’s pale copy of the dead, rotted tree it is the soft physicality of the unfinished Japanese cypress you gather from the swirls of wood grain and the cut of the tools. And because the form visually seems to falls apart into two separate pieces as you circle it you are reminded that the sculpture is indeed wood and not a simulated material. So  it too is drying, beginning its own slow process of natural degeneration. That fact is a part of the physical reality our encounter with the work brings us. It nudges the exactitude of Ray’s replication beyond the simulating world of appearances into a subtle but quite literal state that is doubly arresting for the way it opens up the sculpture’s appearance to larger meanings.

Ann Hamilton, “tower,” IMG
series, opened in 2007,
Photo credit: Lynne  Hayes

Ann Hamilton, “tower,” IMG
series, opened in 2007,
Photo credit: Lynne  Hayes
Debord described the social domination of spectacle as an economy of loss that degrades being by stages; first into having, then to appearance. Hamilton’s comment suggests to me that art, by reigniting the active experiences of the body, might offer a way to return larger meaning to a culture grown acclimatized to superficial appearances, sound bites, interpretive captions and co-opting messages.

In Hamilton’s art it is often language, in the mediating, codified form of the written word that is opened up to larger meanings. Like Ray she sometimes does this by acts of literalism. Time and again in her pieces’ written words have been seared, rubbed, cut or washed from their mooring on pages and walls. That act is usually performed in the presence of the viewer in a room or space where sounds, smells and evocative materials encourage the spectator to assimilate meaning through their own bodily impressions and memories. Those rooms, with language projected as a limited kind of understanding that is tangibly lost and then expansively found in direct experience, reconnect the viewer to meaning as something generative, vast and associative.

At the Hammer Hamilton described one of her latest projects, an eight story concrete “tower” on the grounds of the Oliver Ranch in Geyersville, California. Although a permanent structure and not a temporary installation, the artist designed it the way she does all her architecturally sited works, to create a body-based experience of sensations and associations. “tower” is a tall, hollow cylindrical space. The top is dramatically open to the empty sky but at the bottom is a reflective pool of dark water, part baptismal fount, part deep well. Twin sets of stairs reminiscent of a twisting double helix ascend the inside walls from the pool to the top, narrowing as they go. Light enters this erect space via numerous cut windows and angled apertures that also create seats in the walls, suggesting ritual funerary niches and the breath holes of woodwind instruments. Sound bounces and tumbles within the cylinder, acoustically “alive” and active. During performances it escapes into the landscape from the many baffled slits and windows, just as those ledges frame and funnel the sounds and sights of the surrounding rolling landscape back into the curving architecture in a kind of communion.

Because “tower” is a site designed to instigate the experience and contemplation of direct sensory experience, it reminds me of James Turrell’s “Skyspace” installations. While each “Skyspace” is different in scale and shape, in general they all make architectural space into a theater or observatory whose ocular device is a large, shaped hole in the ceiling. The edges of the hole are carefully shaped and sharpened to create an experience of “celestial vaulting”--or the illusion that the sky and ceiling are on the same plane.  Looking up, without a horizon line to ground the eye, or a wall’s dimension to give the roof a separating sense of mass or volume, the sky seems to fuse with the room’s architecture. The result is a roof of sky; a seemingly tangible surface whose luminous changes, especially at sunset, are riveting. The experience is absorbing on such a fundamental level that it begs time to digest the experience.

In his book on photography, “Another Way of Telling,” John Berger wrote that, “In every act of looking there is an expectation of meaning. This expectation should be separated from a desire for an explanation. The one who looks may explain afterwards; but prior to an explanation, there is the expectation of what appearances themselves may be about to reveal.” That expectation of meaning is now constrained by a culture flooded with images and objects which constantly present meaning and reality’s appearances as limited to the most superficial, available, already known or simply seen.

Turrell said of one “Skyspace” that it “deal[t] with light itself, not as a bearer of revelation, but as revelation itself.” That sense of epiphany as a sensory experience of vast meaningfulness--something which is essential, comprehended by the body, but beyond words--is what body-based art uniquely offers: a way of reconnecting with the meaning beyond appearances. Art that opens up those possibilities is indeed essential and political.

Author John Berger

James Turrell, Ganzfeld,
“End Around”.