DECONSTRUCTING INSTALLATION ART © 2006 Graham Coulter-Smith CASIAD PUBLISHING ISBN 978-0-9548334-4-2

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The installations of Paul Pfeiffer, Mike Nelson and Gregor Schneider that will be dealt with here possess a cinematic as well as a sculptural-installational sensibility and accordingly we can preface an examination of their work with a brief account of narrative immersion with an emphasis upon cinematic media.

One of the classic methods by which the cinematic medium immerses the viewer is via point of view editing. In her essay ‘The Formulation of the Classical Style, 1909–1928’ Kristin Thomson explains:

most classical narration arises from within the story itself, often by binding our knowledge to shifts in the characters’ attention: we notice or concentrate on elements to which the characters’ glances direct us. In the construction of contiguous spaces, POV [point of view], the eyeline match, and SRS [shot-reverse-shot] do not work as isolated devices; rather they operate together within the larger systems of logic, time, and space (in Persson 2003: 66; Thompson, 1985: 210)

Commenting on this passage Per Persson notes that point of view editing is:

not only a central part of classical cinema's general striving for spatial immersion of the spectator, but also constitutes one of the first steps toward narrative immersion. Enabling the spectator to attribute emotions, beliefs, goals, and knowledge to characters is the first step toward the processes of alliance, empathy, and identification, all of which lie at the core of all narrative art forms. (Persson 2003: 66)

Our engagement with the gaze of the camera, which encompasses the actors’ gazes, enables spatial and narrative immersion. Accordingly, we can note that such narrative immersion is accompanied by a virtual mode of corporeal immersion. And such virtual embodiment can be compared with Lacanian meditations on the gaze and the mirror stage wherein the our perception of our body becomes socially constructed.

Ghosts: Paul Pfeiffer

The next instance of installation art I will treat is Paul Pfeiffer’s Dutch Interior, 2003, (shown at the MIT List Visual Arts Center) which relates directly to the immersive capacity of point of view in cinematic narrative. Dutch Interior was inspired by the film The Amityville Horror, 1979. Pfeiffer was particularly interested by the interplay of two points of view in The Amityville Horror, that of the human characters and that of a satanic presence. He was struck by the role played by the staircase in the film which became ‘a central corridor along which a meeting of gazes occurs between the human inhabitants, the family, and this non-human inhabitant, the devil.’ (PBS Pfeiffer 2004). Pfeiffer recalls: ‘there’s many really disturbing scenes where you’re looking down the staircase at the family coming up or looking up the staircase at the priest coming down.’

To create the installation Pfeiffer reconstructed the hall and central stairway of the house working with a professional miniature set designer. The result is a dollhouse-sized diorama which is fitted with a miniature surveillance camera that shows a view from the top of the staircase which in the film is the human viewpoint. The view is projected onto a large wall and as the viewer moves closer to the wall the image becomes pixelated and one can see a hole with light emanating from it. This hole will provide the spectator with a point of view commensurate with the ‘satanic presence’. Pfeiffer explains:

you’re viewing this otherwise ideal suburban house from behind a bush, or peeking around a tree, or peeking in through a window or through some corner in the house that really wouldn’t be the place where a human being would stand. It’s either too low or too high. Or from someplace that would really be uninhabitable to an adult human, maybe a child, but maybe not even that. {PBS 2004}

When the viewer looks through the hole they see the diorama itself which is built into the wall. Pfeiffer explains ‘you find yourself looking through the peephole and looking in the opposite direction from the bottom of the stairs and the entryway of the house, upwards towards the second floor’ which is the point of view being projected onto the wall. Dutch Interior strips the immersive narrative from the film and replaces it with the  rhetoric of the mise en abyme, or hall of mirrors. The title ‘Dutch Interior’ begins to recall the doorways within doorways evident in the paintings of Pieter de Hooch.

We can also ask what is the difference between Dutch Interior and The Amityville Horror, 1979? The film is a work of popular culture, which must have some outstanding features due to the fact that it was remade in 2005. Dutch Interior on the other hand is a serious work of art. This is a significant question because it concerns the relationship between art and everyday life. The aim of the film is to immerse us in a horrific situation.[20] And it is significant that a 3D unofficial sequel Amityville 3D, 1983, was released; significant because it indicates that immersion is a crucial feature of this film. But in this case the  immersion is into a theatrical simulacrum of a real-life horrific murder that took place on Long Island in 1974.

The fact that the human tragedy of the murder is embellished with tales of satanic possession places the cinematic versions in the domain of fantasy. It is the distancing effect of the fantastic overlay that gives the viewer his or her license to be thrilled by the echoes of a real tragedy. Pfeiffer’s Dutch Interior is of an entirely different register because he focuses solely on the use of point of view as a device to signify the other. One could say he ‘Lacanianizes’ The Amityville Horror. The horror is removed, which is to say the Dionysian aspect of this theatrical spectacle is removed. What we are left with is the disembodied gaze. And what we also realise is that this gaze seems inherently aesthetic when contrasted with the prurient immersion of the gaze associated with watching a film such as The Amityville Horror. We then arrive at the rather surprising conclusion that immersion and aesthetic experience may not necessarily coincide. We begin to appreciate the elegance of Adorno’s aphorism: ‘distance is the primary condition for getting close to the content of a work’.

Prurient Immersion: Gregor Schneider

We should not apply Adorno’s aphorism as an absolute, however, but as a rule of thumb capable of flexibility according to the occasion. This is necessary when we come to the immersive installations of Gregor Schneider which can, at one level, have an The Amityville Horror-like effect. Whereas Pfeiffer introduces distance Schneider appears to want to create a narrative immersion so powerful that the viewer will lose the distance that she is used to when watching a film or a theatrical performance. He wants to tip us over the boundary between the imaginary and the real that is implicit in all narrative immersion.

Cinematic immersion is an interface between the imaginary and the real. But for most people it is trivial. When we enter into narrative cinematic immersion, we treat the actors to all intents and purposes as if we were watching real people in real life situations. In spite of this we can shift effortlessly from immersion back to reality. We can also shift from imaginary interpersonal immersion into noticing the ways in which the camera is constructing the illusion via close ups, tracking shots and point of view editing etc. The only time that cinematic immersion becomes deeper is when for some reason (psychological imbalance, illness, drugs) ego boundaries are weakened, then it can become intensely empathic and that boundary between the real and the imaginary becomes very thin indeed.[21]

But, as Gregor Schneider reveals, the boundary can also be thinned if the viewer can walk into the movie or onto the stage.

Schneider began his career by turning his house in Rheydt Germany into a work of art in 1985 at the age of sixteen. Totes Haus ur (dead house ur) consists of rooms within rooms, false walls, false doors, false windows, a coffee room that rotates and a room of screams which recalls John Bock’s pseudo-schizoid elaborations of German Expressionism. Totes Haus ur is a perfect instance of a post-surrealist disruption of the everyday. House Rheydt also references Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbau which was similarly a disruption of the everyday domestic space. Like Totes Haus ur, Merzbau possessed a dimension of strangeness due to the fact that it was a fetishistic shrine to his friends. Schwitters would beg or filch personal belongings from them—Hannah Hoch’s door key, Hans Richter’s hair, Sophie Tauber Arp’s bra, etc.—and place them in special niches in the Merzbau. It became a Calligarian cabinet of memories.

In 2004 Schneider created an environmental immersive installation—Die Familie Schneider—in London under the auspices of the art foundation Artangel. Artangel itself is worthy of note here because it is dedicated to art that operates outside the confines of the museum. However, in the case of Die Familie Schneider there were constraints similar to those evident in a gallery environment. But in this case the time limit imposed on the viewer appears motivated less by a desire to preserve the precious object than by a desire to make the experience more chilling than it might have been given more time to become familiar with it.

Die Familie Schneider consisted of two neighbouring disused houses in an East London street being turned into theatrical mises en scène complete with actors. As in Totes Haus ur Schneider manipulated the space and ambience creating a disorienting and disturbing mise en scène. The major difference with this work is his addition of professional actors who ignore viewers’ attempts at communication making the experience one in which both the viewer and the actors are akin to ghosts. The experience is unnerving when one finds a man masturbating in a shower, and another person trussed up in a bin liner apparently dead in a stifling, seedy bedroom. It is certainly more unnerving than watching The Amityville Horror because one is not imagining that one is there, one is actually there. Perhaps one of the most creepy features of this mise en scène are the references to children, a child gate on the stairs, a closet filled with sweets, a child-sized mattress. And several commentators have referred to the terrible crimes that have happened behind the seemingly innocent facades of British houses. All of which serves to make a comparison with the prurient gaze associated with The Amityville Horror more salient.

Schneider relies on surrealist-like tricks to destablise the everyday, but there is something ultimately disappointing about surrealistic disruptions of the everyday, something adolescent and futile, Patrick Waldberg cites the following instances:

Philippe Soupault, looking somewhat haggard, would ring the doorbells and ask the concierges ‘if Philippe Soupault did not live there’. Benjamin Péret would insult priests on the street … Jacques Prévert, at night dressed as a hooligan, would lead astray the innocent passer-by in the bourgeois quarters. Tanguy captured spiders, which he ate alive to terrify the neighbourhood. (Waldberg 1997:34-5)

Schneider’s transformation of two archetypal British domestic environments into a set for a horror film comes close to prurient spectacle. But the work is afforded the requisite aesthetic distance by the device of doubling.

The interior of each house was identically constructed and even the actors appeared to be twins. At first sight this intensified the strangeness of the experience, but then it estranged the experience bringing to mind the Freudian analysis of dreams in terms mechanisms such as doubling, condensation and displacement. From an aesthetic point of view the doubling gave a conceptual, intellectual dimension to what could otherwise be discounted as a ‘creepy’ experience. Doubling also relates to the manner in which we become immersed in narrative cinema. T. Jefferson Klein quotes Christian Metz:

The imaginary by definition combines a certain presence and a certain absence. … The act of perception is real (the cinema is not a fantasm), but the perceived is not really the object, it is its shadow, its phantom, its double, its reflection in a new sort of mirror. … Cinematic fiction is experienced … as the quasi-real presence of … irreality itself. (in Klein 1987: 14)

The quasi-real presence which is also an absence makes cinema not only an analogue of the mirror but also an analogue of the Lacanian Imaginary that can become a source of potential disturbance of the Symbolic Order, due to the fact that the Imaginary—in the form of myth, metaphor and narrative—helps create the Symbolic Order.[22] And what is especially significant about the use of doubling in Die Familie Schneider is that the artist is able to transpose an uncanny effect into physical reality. But there is little sense in which Schneider’s installations fit Claire Bishop’s discussion of the activation of the viewer via immersion where she claims that: ‘This activation is, moreover, regarded as emancipatory, since it is analogous to the viewer’s engagement in the world. A transitive relationship comes to be implied between ‘activated spectatorship’ and active engagement in the social-political arena.’ (2005: 11).

Schneider’s house of horrors has little overt social relevance.  It can be described more as an intellectual analogue of the 3D version of The Amityville Horror. Intellectual because its apparatus of affect and its attacks on ego boundary are accompanied with the cognitive dislocation produced by doubling. If there is any ‘emancipatory’ value in Schneider’s work then it concerns his demonstration degree to which the ego can be unbalanced by an apparatus of narrative immersion. One can draw an analogy, for example, between Schneider’s house of horrors and the politics of fear currently being deployed in the cause of the ‘war on terror’. And this analogy is not far-fetched because Schneider’s proposal to the 2005 Venice Biennale was Cube Venice, 2005. This was to be a fifty foot (15.24 metres) black cube made of scaffolding covered in fabric, to be erected in the middle of the Piazza San Marco, Venice. The cube was inspired by the Ka’bah in Mecca, the holy site of Islam. But in the context of the ‘war on terror’ the work was rejected and a video account of the project was shown instead. If Cube Venice had been constructed then it would have been a highly dramatic and politically loaded sculptural installation. It would have been considerably more powerful than Jason Rhoades’ solipsistic, Dali-like, paranoid-critical vision of tuna fish swimming anticlockwise around the actual Ka’bah, mentioned earlier in this chapter. Rhoades’ narrative is safely locked away in the realms of the licence given to the individual artist to spin whatever web of crazy interconnections he or she may wish. Cube Venice, in contrast, would have interpenetrated everyday life, placing a spanner in the works of the Symbolic Order.

Another significant achievement of Die Familie Schneider lies in its contribution to the intersection of art with theatre, especially in terms of taking theatrical installation out of the gallery and onto the street. But this wasn’t an open house, the time limit has been mentioned, there was also a  preliminary telephone screening, one had to collect keys from Artangel, and there was the ban on photography that reflected the panoptic order of the museum.

Ultimately what is interesting about Die Familie Schneider is the way in which it mutates Adorno’s point that  ‘distance is the primary condition for getting close to the content of a work’. The content of Die Familie Schneider is precisely an experience of the uncanny. And in this sense it comes very close to Bishop’s definition of installation art: ‘Instead of representing texture, space, light and so on, installation art presents these elements directly for us to experience.’ (2005: 11). We literally walk into the picture; and this is the best way of describing it because Die Familie Schneider is not reality. The viewer is like a ghost unable to interact with the actors. The viewer is very conscious that she has been placed in the scene without a script and this sense of dislocation serves to intensify the experience of the uncanny. One might compare the sensation of Die Familie Schneider with the rhetoric of absence evident in Paul Pfeiffer’s The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: a series of photographs of basketball games in which Pfeiffer erased the ball. The game is transmogrified into a mystic match wherein the players play with nothingness. There is a similar lack in Die Familie Schneider that is the moment of distance that makes it an aesthetic, not an actual, experience.

Virtual Reality

The varieties of immersive installation we have examined up to this point have been fundamentally of the category ‘expanded sculpture’. But the immersive capacity of a purely sculptural installation has its material limitations and it is instructive to note that expanding the repertoire of variety of media to include light, photography, sound, and video can significantly enhance the immersive and narrative character of sculptural installation. A great deal has been achieved via the installation strategy but there is room for more exploration. In particular it is possible to investigate immersive and narratological effects via digital media.

 

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Paul Pfeiffer, Dutch Interior, 2003, installed at the MIT List Visual Arts Center. View through the peephole in the video projection screen.

Paul Pfeiffer, Dutch Interior, 2003, installed at the MIT List Visual Arts Center. View through the peephole in the video projection screen.

Paul Pfeiffer, Dutch Interior, 2003, (shown at the MIT List Visual Arts Center)

Paul Pfeiffer, Dutch Interior, 2003, installed at the MIT List Visual Arts Center.

Paul Pfeiffer, Dutch Interior, 2003, (shown at the MIT List Visual Arts Center)

Paul Pfeiffer, Dutch Interior, 2003, installed at the MIT List Visual Arts Center. A viewer looks through the peephole in the projection screen at the miniature set reconstructed according to the scene in the film The Amityville Horror, 1979 .

Paul Pfeiffer, Dutch Interior, 2003, installed at the MIT List Visual Arts Center. A viewer peeps through a hole in the projection screen to see the miniature house being represented on the video screen.

Paul Pfeiffer, Dutch Interior, 2003, installed at the MIT List Visual Arts Center. A viewer peeps through a hole in the projection screen to see the miniature house being represented on the screen. FIND IN TEXT

Gregor Schneider, Die Familie Schneider, 2004. A woman washes dishes endlessly.

Gregor Schneider, Die Familie Schneider, 2004. A woman washes dishes endlessly.

Gregor Schneider, Die Familie Schneider, 2004. Horror within an everyday setting.

Gregor Schneider, Die Familie Schneider, 2004. Horror within an everyday setting.

Exhibition with men in black bags similar to one of the spectacles in Die Familie Schneider. Photo: Distantatlas