IMAGINATION, Dead Imagine and Model for Stage and Screen


An androgynous head is projected as if contained within a Minimalist cube. Sounds of the head slowly breathing fill the space. The head is serene, waiting. Suddenly a substance pours over it from all five sides, drenching it in what appears to be a bodily fluid. The spectator wants to turn away but cannot, the gaze is compelled through invocation of the scopic drive. Horror at the repulsive nature of the substance is replaced by fascination with the beauty of these “overwhelming natural energies as they seem to transform into majestic but abstract landscapes.”

On Sunday, November 22, from 5:00 - 7:00 pm, The Society will have an opening reception for Judith Barry, a video and installation artist born in Columbus, Ohio, who currently lives and works in New York.

The above description is reprinted from her description of the piece that first appeared in Public Fantasy: an anthology of critical essays, fictions and project descriptions by Judith Barry, published by the Institute of Contemporary Art, London, on the occasion of her one person exhibition there last year. She continues:

“As Rosalind Krauss has written, ‘Minimalism was indeed committed to [a] notion of “lived bodily perception”. A perception that broke with what it saw as the decorporealized and therefore bloodless, algebraicized condition of abstract painting in which a visuality cut loose from the rest of the bodily sensorium and now remade in the model of Modernism’s drive towards absolute autonomy had become the picture of an entirely rationalized, serialized subject.’

Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s concept of the body finds an echo in the history of aesthetics, in particular the sublime. In the 18th century the power and terror of nature unleashed provoked intimations of infinity and deity, dwarfing die observer who, aspiring to transcendence, never forgot his insignificance. 19th century concepts of the sublime and the self were later transformed in America into the transcendental landscape, where ‘the painter loses sight of himself in the face of nature,’ eliminating his mediating or interpretive presence.”

Barry allies this Enlightenment concept of the transcendental landscape with the different sort of transcendence - the overwhelming and disorienting clatter of our contemporary consumer environments. If we think about the obliterating scale of Modern architecture or the global saturation of television and communications satellites we can begin to recognize how we “loose sight of ourselves” in the urban landscape, or how television “eliminates our mediating and interpretive presence.” The significant break for Barry in our time is the need for maintaining a personal bodily awareness in opposition to the homogenizing powers of the world, and how this intellectual and sensual awareness maintains our sense of life, death, and the corporeality of both. She continues:

“Another concept of subjective experience set out by the use of bodily fluids is Julia Kristeva’s notion of the abject. “Food loathing is perhaps the most elementary and most archaic form of abjection. Yet it is refuse and corpses which show me what I permanently thrust aside in order to live. These bodily fluids, this shit is what life withstands, hardly and with difficulty on the part of death. There I am at the border of my condition as a living being. Such waste drops so that I might live, until, from loss to loss, nothing remains in me and my entire body falls beyond the limit; cadere, cadaver. It is death infecting life. Abject,” And it is to this condition that the title IMAGINATION, Dead lmagine (after Samuel Beckett) refers.”

A second piece to be constructed for The Renaissance Society is Model for Stage and Screen, first constructed at Galleria Peroni in Rome for the group exhibition “Non in Codice,” and later reconstructed for the “Aperto” wing of the 1989 Venice Biennale. The work is comprised of a small circular room raised off the main floor of the gallery with a staired entrance door. The interior is dark except for an eerie green light that filters up from a small round hole in the center of the room’s floor and through a miasmic fog that fills the chamber. Viewers enter the room one at a time and eventually begin to experience hallucinations of a sort, provoked by the optical experience of the chamber. Upon leaving the chamber the viewer experiences further hallucinations brought on by the stark contrast of the white, well-lit antechamber of the gallery. This potential deception of the senses is the crux of Model for Stage and Screen, and proposes a serious crack in the idea of sense perception as the foundation of truth and knowledge. Here again is Judith Barry’s description of her work, reprinted from the Public Fantasy anthology:

Model for Stage and Screen is a projection piece where the viewer becomes the projector. Two discs are suspended in a chamber. Light and fog project out of the lower disc in such a way that eventually the viewer begins to experience a variety of retinal effects, (visions or hallucinations). Leaving the chamber and escaping from these hallucinations you experience another retinal effect, retinal excitation, as you see red on the white walls of the antechamber. It is a work where the spectator has little control over what s/he sees.

“Jonathan Muller, an early 19th century scientist, found that the nerves of different senses were physiologically distinct. When electricity was applied to different nerves it would generate different sensations: when applied to the optic nerve it produced a sense of light; applied to the skin, it reproduced the sense of touch. Muller also showed that the converse was true: a variety of different causes could produce the same sensation in a given sensory nerve. His experiments described the arbitrary relationship between stimulus and sensation, showing that die body has an innate capacity to misperceive, when all referential illusion is eliminated. Therefore, any coherent system of meaning based on perception through the body’s senses is threatened.

“I wanted to make a moment in a film where the spectator would suddenly be confronted filmically with the sensations of a real space; that [upon] awakening from the dream that is the movie, s/he would find the theatre of space has continued. While maintaining the diegesis it would also fulfill the desire for narrative’s closure. This is the film that leads out of the spectacle and into spectatorship, a promise of action continuing before the gaze. Spectatorship being the incidence in which the gaze, above all else, is privileged - before action, before decision. This suggests two events inseparably linked together, where the desire to look and for the look to continue, crosses the desire for an end and for something of the past to take its place.

“The prior event is the insistence of the inception of the gaze of Orpheus as he descends into the underworld and transgresses, by turning back, to look at Eurydice. This look, at a moment of forgetfulness, represents the locus of the gaze as the desire to unveil the mysteries of sexual difference and of death. It is in this moment of loss in the gaze that what was simultaneously once most desired is irretrievably lost. Without thinking, it represents that time in which desire is everything not of the world, but of another world, unknown without access.

“This gaze, at the moment of its giving over to an impetus so strong that it causes Orpheus to forget, is woven into the myth of the narrative as the representation of the inscription of the “lack” as it passes from the temporal to the permanent, since Eurydice is taken from Orpheus on the wedding night before the final act. This eternal “lack” speaks metaphorically not of castration, but of the impossibility of seeing into that world where desire has presented itself. For it is into this darkness that it struggles most to perceive.

“The other look, the gaze of Oedipus after he is King, is a difference. Blind eyes that only now see a truth that is beyond interpretation, being able to see, yet not seeing. Oedipus interprets again and again his own story. First of the oracle as told to him; then as a riddle, which he solves; then as a final oracle for which there is no solution. It is in the realization of the impossibility of a solution that he blinds (castrates) himself, for it is here that he realizes whose story must be told. The story of himself as it unfolds ‘après coup,’ as a desire for the story about himself.

“So it is that these two moments cross each other, the Orphic moment - the impetus for looking; and the Oedipal - the moment of insight. Yet with each, the gaze has a primacy that cannot contract ordinary experience, hence its metaphoric relationship with myth. This then becomes the logic, not for discourse, but for the ordering of discourse - for the structure of a narrative which cannot be played out.”