Something must happen to make the child aware of its separation from the world around it and enable it to be conditioned by social rules and regulations. Freud used the metaphor of socialisation as ‘castration’ in the Oedipus Complex. Castration is an appropriate analogy as it suggests that when we become split off from the mind of the body a chasm opens up in our being that makes us all the more socially dependent and therefore malleable. We constantly search for that lost primal sense of bodily being via relationships with others (who are, unfortunately, similarly split) but inevitably in vain. Freud’s castration metaphor, however, is marred by its gender bias. The Lacanian mythology of the origin of the social self has the advantage of being less gender specific. Instead of castration Lacan uses the metaphor of the ‘mirror stage’, which is useful here because it can serve as a figure for the imagination.
Briefly, we can understand Lacan’s allegory of the ‘mirror stage’ as a reverse Orphic journey through the mirror away from the corporeal, polymorphously perverse, illusion-generating universe of the underworld that is the unconscious mind into the light of social reality and egohood. According to Lacan’s mythic narrative the very young child sees its body as a coherent whole for the first time in a mirror, and in the moment of self-recognition enters into what Lacan calls, rather grandly, the ‘Symbolic Order’. There are three ‘orders’ in the Lacanian scheme, the Symbolic, Imaginary and the Real. The mirror can be understood as figuring the Imaginary, and the Real refers to what might, metaphorically, lie behind the mirror: which is to say, a repressed mind of the body.In Lacanian terms the mirror, the zone of the Imaginary, is the interface between the two worlds: social consciousness, on the one hand; the ‘Real’ is that which is not subject to the Symbolic Order, something akin to the Freudian Id or the Jungian ‘shadow’.
Very little of Lacan’s speculations are based on scientific evidence, and his theory is akin to a mythic narrative. But it has proven effective as an aesthetic model possibly because Lacanian theory is more a work of art than a work of science. Nevertheless, some scientific support for Lacan’s mirror stage came to light in the 1990s with the discovery of mirror neurones, and we will deal with that in chapter four.
For Lacan the importance of seeing oneself in the mirror, or photograph, lies in the fact that one sees oneself as others see one, and as one sees others. In effect one becomes constructed in terms of the external gaze of others. One begins to accept an artificially integrated, disembodied, externalised image of oneself which supersedes the sensual-corporeal experience of self that allegedly characterises the pre-social condition.
The relevance of Lacanian theory to the topic of immersive installation will become evident in the next work which is even more immersive than Eliasson’s The Weather Project. The question posed by such work is whether it might be possible for a work of art to take the viewer through the Lacanian mirror? And if it can should it?
The art historian and theorist Mieke Bal tells a Carrollian story of when she was in an art gallery in Lisbon looking at works by Peter Paul Rubens and Marcel Broodthaers, she saw a door in the corner of the gallery. Bal opened the door and without looking at the information plaque she walked into a room filled with a thick mist—the door swung shut behind her. Bal’s eloquent report of her experience is both evocative and informative:
I found myself totally immersed in a piece … I was standing in nothingness. Blissful, bright and totally opaque was the space that surrounded me, and that dimmed all sound. No, space is the wrong word, too worldly. The world was on the other side of the door. Where was I? In a strong literal sense, nowhere. I saw nothing, with my eyes wide open. But whereas the idea of nothing is usually associated with darkness, the dense, impenetrable mist packed into the space whose limits I could not even guess was so bright it seemed made out of kitsch fantasies of heaven. (Ball 1999)
Bal appears to be describing a sense of bliss, but as the sensation of nothingness gradually dispelled and she became able to discern aspects of the room, in the same way that our eye gradually accommodates to darkness, she reports that she experienced a degree of anxiety:
The change in the space consisted of a gradual, partial receding of the absolute opacity of the white that surrounded me and that stuck to my skin, challenging my sense of my own boundaries. Because when this receding took place I became aware of my own dissolution. Thus, the after-effect of the event retrospectively turned the initial experience into an unsettling one, which it had not been until then. (Ball 1999)
Bal’s description of her totally unprepared immersion is instructive because it fits in so perfectly to what one would expect from a sensory deprivation experience. Her experience, moreover, can be interpreted from a Lacanian point of view as, at least, touching the pre-socialised condition in which the body has no boundary and where the distinction between body and environment is blurred.
And because conscious perception requires a self that perceives, one can compare the dissolution of the boundary between body and environment with the dissolution of the boundary between self and other that can be accompanied by the blissful feelings of ‘love’.
Accordingly, it is not surprising that Bal became unsettled when this sense of corporeal oneness began to recede as her brain accommodated to the surroundings and reinstated the separation of body from those surroundings. Indeed one could describe it as an unsettling resurrection of the mirror stage. The feeling was obviously of some weight because Bal refers to it as an ‘anxiety “of the heart”’. She quotes Blaise Pascal ‘the heart has reasons that reason knows nothing of’ (which is reminiscent of Nietzsche’s meditations on the body). It is as if Bal had touched some sweet thing she had lost contact with while dwelling with the rest of us in the cool reality of the Symbolic Order.
Then there is the third stage to Bal’s experience which can be described as a return to the Symbolic Order. This occurs when she turns away from her description of the experience to an intellectual exegesis. Bal is renowned for her application of narrative theory to art history and so it is not surprising that her intellectualisation of the experience is based on this framework. She shatters her ‘kitsch fantasies of heaven’ by introducing the technical term ‘retroversion’ explaining its use in narratology. She explains that it is a device in which readers are:
given access to a universe of events that run through time in different directions, criss-crossing where time thickens. Retroversion empowers the reader or viewer; it gives access to unknown worlds. It opens up our lives to manifold possibilities that console us in our grief of being bound, hands and feet, by time's tyranny. (Bal 1999)
What she does in this third phase is as interesting as the rest, she brings to bear a fundamental premise of modernity which is the implosion of time and the explosion of points of view. One can trace this perception back to the Cubist shattering of the single viewpoint of Renaissance perspective, to montage, the aesthetics of chance and the efflorescence of ‘isms’ each of which provides us with yet another, different way of seeing. Accordingly, our return to the Symbolic Order is not a return to a single ‘Order’ of the real, a single way of seeing the things we call real, but to multiple orders of socially constructed reality; each one permeated with the deconstructive force of imagination. Bal reinforces this point later in her essay when she quotes Rosalind Krauss: ‘modern sculpture begins where the fixed positions from which we weave fictions of space are abandoned in favor of new, hitherto unknown, positions’ (in Bal 1999).
Bal’s eloquent and evocative account of her surprise encounter with Janssens’ mist installation is instructive because it suggests that it might be possible on occasion to at least brush up against the mirror if not actually step through it.
Ultimately, however, when we step into a mist installation we are stepping into an illusion. Bishop would not agree because she argues that ‘instead of representing texture, space, light and so on, installation art presents these elements directly for us to experience. This introduces an emphasis on sensory immediacy’ (Bishop 2005: 11). Well yes that is almost the case, but we have to remember that what we are witnessing is a construct, a mode of theatre. Only then can we step back and comment on it in a manner that is significantly different from the way in which we might comment upon an experience of being immersed in a thick mist while on a walk in the Scottish Highlands. Bal’s reflections on her experience are as important as the experience.
If the mist installation Bal entered was not a construct housed in an art gallery Bal would not be writing about it because it would not be art. It is also the case that if such works were about the experience alone then they would be pure spectacle. But this is not the case, Janssens' mist installations arose out of her work as a conceptual sculptor and as such, like Eliasson, her work is primarily about reflection upon sensation, not an ego-dissolving, submissive immersion in sensation. We are firmly in the realm of the mirror even in the depths of Janssens’ mist. ‘The Imaginary’, or to use an older term, imagination, remains the heart of the aesthetic experience. And in this text the term imagination is used most often in the sense coined by David Hume who gave it a cognitive role as the mental faculty responsible for the synthesis of simple ideas into more complex configurations. Hume will be dealt with in more detail in chapter four ‘Recombination’.
Janssens’ mist installation is less a sensory deprivation experiment designed to dissolve the ego boundary than it is a chance to reflect, as does Bal, upon that boundary. Like Eliasson’s The Weather Project Janssens preserves a balance between the bliss-like effect of sensory immersion and the reflective distance that accompanies serious art.
There are installation artists, however, such as John Bock and Paul McCarthy who appear to subscribe to a more hard-core Dionysian dissolution into corporeal consciousness. Before examining their work I would like to return once more to Hartmut Boehme’s antique aphorism ‘All happiness is immersion in flesh and cancels the history of the subject. All consciousness is emancipation from flesh to which nature subjects us’ (in Grau 2003: 203). Boehme has a point because a Dionysian voyage into the mind of the body can be a voyage not only away from reason but also away from society. In its extreme form it is an excursion into a condition Western culture labels ‘madness’. In smaller tribal societies people who develop an unusual empathy with the elusive and potent Nietzschean self (or Other) of the body might be considered shamans but in our massified, materialistic, pragmatic-rational, and statistically averaged culture this is not the case. We may enjoy madness in artistic representations but not in real life. The reason why madness can be released in the art gallery/museum is because a regime of distance is imposed upon it. Part of that distancing is due to the museum’s capacity as protector of the precious art object; but there is another reason. Since the days of Expressionism and Surrealism the art gallery has also become a socially condoned zone for the properly managed display of the Other.
An excessive, Dionysian mode of expression is quite acceptable in our capitalist democracies but only within the confines of the socially segregated, institutionalised world of fine art. And the fact that artists can receive considerable approbation and, for the principal players, financial reward for delivering such cathartic manifestations to a predominantly middle class art loving public means that they are quite happy to be so contained, roped off and subjected to serious, distanced scrutiny rather than taking their ‘liberation of desire’ into everyday life.
The German artist—his nationality is relevant due to references to expressionism—John Bock’s installations are a self-conscious theatre of the Id. And although his immersive installations appear to be about the body and materiality they are also quite hyperreal. Lacanian theory seems too heavy, too serious as a framework for understanding this artist. The problem is that we are not dealing with authenticity when we examine the work of Bock. There is no question of a traditional German Expressionist romantic exploration of the soul. Instead Bock adopts the persona of the mad artist in the manner of an actor. He appropriates that persona and parades it in a carnivalesque manner but strictly within the confines of the art institution where the parody can be understood and enjoyed by the cognoscenti. But if we think on what Bock is doing, he is actually parading the absurdity and failure of the aesthetic politics of the ‘liberation of desire’.
Surrealist artists practiced ‘the liberation of desire’ approach only to become another ‘ism’. One might also cite the resurgence of belief that jouissance can change the world during the days of the drug-fueled ‘flower power’ movement of late 1960s and early 1970s which argued for social change via tuning in, turning on and dropping out. Most of its adherents dropped back in soon after. The main instance of social transformation that can be pointed to is the women’s movement which achieved its goals via communication and organisation within the sphere of middle class consciousness. One can also cite the gay and lesbian movements which embraced the concept of the liberation of desire but not to the extent of forgetting to organise. In other words any ethical philosophy that advocates an abolition of reason as a means of changing society is fundamentally romantic and anachronistic.
What we witness in Bock’s work is an essentially comic, theatrical deconstruction of the deadly serious notions of the unconscious mind, the Lacanian ‘Real’ and the Nietzschean other of reason and the romantic stereotype of the artist as madman.
With regard to immersion, however, Bock’s Klutterkammer (a conflation of Kultur, clutter, and Wunderkammer) installation at the ICA, London, 2004, is of interest here because it was a highly immersive installation. Bock effectively built a labyrinthine gallery within the gallery which had the effect of releasing the visitor from the panoptic regime of the museum. The gallery guards tried their best to keep an eye on the visitors but Bock’s structure made this extremely difficult due to its labyrinthine complexity. Like Eliasson’s The Weather Report this deconstruction of the panoptic regime of the museum actually becomes, in retrospect, more significant than the regressive jouissance we experience via the immersive experience.
Bock’s galley within a gallery was made out of ‘poor’ materials (almost obligatory in sculpture at the turn of the millennium): chip board, polythene, scaffolding, plywood, cling wrap, rough-hewn wood, plywood, and cinder bricks. The result looked like a stage set for a remake of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, 1920, a classic of German Expressionist cinema.
Klutterkammer possessed a peculiarly attractive infantile and demented quality. One could enter the installation through plywood tunnels but the less agile were accommodated via two doors. The tunnels presented the viewer with more of a challenge and an adventure. Inside the tunnels there were Annette Messager-like or Mike Kelley-like stuffed creatures hanging from the roof and apparently meaningless videos.
The viewer was thoroughly immersed. When one crawled in these tunnels and climbed the ladders one noted not only their Arte Povera credentials but also the fact that they were sturdily constructed. However mad the architecture might have appeared it was actually structurally sound. Such observations flagged the fact that all the Bockian demented infantilism one was immersed in was actually a carefully constructed mise en scène.
And within this labyrinthine fun house were peppered Bock’s videos and photography and sculptural constructions. Outstanding works were a giant stuffed toy-like insect, a dancing potato (reminiscent of Fischli and Weiss) and a grunge-aesthetic mobile framed by a cling wrap anti-geo dome. There were also some apparently angst-like works (such as a photograph of a Rudolf Schwarzkogler-like bandaged up body) but they seemed somehow sweet in this environment. The individual ‘works of art’ on display complete with unobtrusive, no-frills, typed labels seemed like simulacra and subterfuge because the real work of art was most certainly his aggressive interrogation of the institutional spaces in which installation art is ineluctably encompassed.
From the point of view of immersion what seems most evident from Klutterkammer is that it is more fun being in Bock’s gallery-within-the-gallery than being in the gallery.