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Analysis out of the box

Journey across the infrathin, a virtual exhibition

Analysis out of the boxContemporary Art | Picture yourself entering an exhibition space where you are welcomed by small black mirrors, their reflections giving the whole room a golden shade. You can pick them up and wander around the exhibit with them. You look for Lorrain’s paintings but find none. Beside you, a child grabs a mirror the size of a tablet from a display, a few seconds later he discovers with wonder the ceiling frescœs on its surface. After a while he looks enviously at the visitors that walk around with real digital tablets, made available to experience digital artworks specifically conceived for those platforms by emergent artists.

Larry Bell, Standing Walls à la Chinati Foundation 2014 © Chinati Foundation, Photo Alex Marks
Larry Bell, Standing Walls à la Chinati Foundation 2014
© Chinati Foundation, Photo Alex Marks

From one glass surface to the other

Dan Graham, Mannerism Rococo, 2007 © Marian Goodman
Dan Graham, Mannerism Rococo, 2007
© Marian Goodman

As you walk around the rooms, you find contemporary works interacting with modern and classical pieces. At the heart of the exhibition, Marcel Duchamp’s The large glass (1915-1923) occupies a privileged position. Beside it, you come across Filippo Archinto du Titien’s portrait (1558), which depicts half of his body disappearing behind a veil : the archbishop seems to be melting, trapped between the veil’s screen and the painting’s black background. He is caught in between two elements, cornered in a non-space, just like the bride and the bachelors who are stuck between two glass walls in Duchamp’s artwork. A little further, you stumble upon a glass pavilion made by Dan Graham (Mannerism/Rococo, 2007), children play hide-and-seek around it, amused by the distorted image of their bodies through the glass. They get tired of the game after a while and timidly approach Larry Bell’s installation, made of iridescent glass walls. The artwork’s reflected images change according to the light, alternatively appearing and disappearing, leaving the children in contemplation, both amazed and frightened by the unreal aspect of the glass (Standing Walls).

Deepening into image and reflection

Robert Smithson, Leaning Mirror, 1969 © Dia Art Foundation; Partial gift, Lannan Foundation, 2013 © Holt-Smithson Estate/Licensed by VAGA, New York. Photo: Bill Jacobson Studio, New York
Robert Smithson, Leaning Mirror, 1969
© Dia Art Foundation; Partial gift, Lannan Foundation, 2013 © Holt-Smithson Estate/Licensed by VAGA, New York. Photo: Bill Jacobson Studio, New York

Inside the mirror

Further on, we find Leaning Mirror a work by Robert Smithson (1969), which consists of a great mirror placed on a pile of sand at an inclination of forty-five degrees to the ground, the piece reflects the light and some parts of the room, however the visitor cannot see his or her reflection on it. Beside it, we have Edouard Manet’s Nana (1877), the painting portrays a young woman facing a mirror, which reflects an abstract image on its opaque surface. Next to it, we stop and watch Robert Morris’s film Mirror (1969), which turns snow landscapes into abstractions when seen through the glass of mirrors.

On the mirror’s surface

You enter a room where you barely have enough time to see your face’s reflection on a falling drop of water, while the image is projected on the wall in real time. You have just experienced He weeps for you by Bill Viola (1976), you turn around to see young Parmigianino’s self-portrait on a convex mirror (1523-24).

Below the mirror

Further on in the exhibition, a television screen shows an impossible plot : the vertiginous superimposition of a simple gesture’s opposite sides. We see a man standing in front of a wall, turning his back to the viewer; suddenly the image (which seems to be made of paper) is torn apart by the same man. He slips his head into the slit of his own paper reflection and breaks through it; he then closes the tear and leaves the scene, having performed a metaphor of the artistic gesture (Three transitions, Peter Campus, 1973). For now, you have only seen the artworks from the 1970’s, but you sit down for a second before continuing your visit.

The fourth dimension

Fourth dimension’s vertigo would have been an appropriate title for the exhibition, which it is actually named Journey across the infra-thin.
As you stand up to pursue your visit, you hear the conversation between two visitors, “The infra-thin… Duchamp again ! We never seem to get past him ! ”.
The second one answers, “Certainly, but this exhibition assumes a beautiful challenge, it attempts to capture the way artists have addressed the issue of platforms and surfaces throughout time, particularly during the technological revolutions, when these notions evolved dramatically and found new shapes.
The fourth dimension is inseparable from the surface, it can simultaneously hide it and reveal it; Duchamp considers it as some sort of “inter-dimension”, between our imagination and reality. Following this line of thought, he believes we can capture the fourth dimension through our “tactile recognition”, a particular type of intuition related to the sense of touch. Duchamp invents the term “infra-thin” in order to qualify his notion of fourth dimension, focusing on the importance of feeling the invisible, the in-between. That might be why we keep going back to him, his notion of “tactile recognition” revives an issue that crosses the history of art and Western culture : the fascination with surfaces. Lewis Carroll gives a famous literary example : Alice must pass on the other side of the mirror in order to discover an upside down world, where reason dœsn’t rule. It could also be said that the fourth dimension is present in classical art, although the term is not used to refer to the art of the period. It would embody everything that is inconceivable in a classical painting; everything expressed through the use of signs but also through the use of materials that give a tactile dimension to the canvas. In that sense, one of the main uses of the fourth dimension in classical works would be the representation of incarnation by Renaissance painters. In their works, they tried to capture the unknown and the impossible in a material way. You might think that the fourth dimension is then related to religion or spirituality, but I would argue otherwise, it is not a transcendental issue, but it is there, somewhere in an in-between.”

Augmented reality

Widening the margins of reality

“Of course says the first visitor. When we look through glass and mirrors, we enter a new dimension that has nothing to do with the other three that we perceive daily. What we experience through the material of glass isn’t merely a reflection of reality or a representation symbol. Through it, we are at the margins of reality; exposed to something completely new based on senses and sensations. In the 18th century, painters were often mocked for staring at landscapes through black mirrors, they were searching for new senses, new apprehensions of the view and to do so they had to experience new interfaces. Nowadays, artists are reactivating the 18th century picturesque aesthetics with their digital tablets by creating artworks through applications of augmented reality (which are to be used in particular environments). We sometimes classify them as gadget creators because we associate them to games such as Pokemon Go; nevertheless, some of them realize coherent and serious works, based on the perceptual stakes of new technologies. These tools are the contemporary version of the black mirrors.”

Unveiling the invisible

Pokemon Stop, entrée du MOMA, Photo Gretchen Scott 2016 © Gretchen Scott
Pokemon Stop, entrée du MOMA, Photo Gretchen Scott 2016
© Gretchen Scott

The second visitor replies, “Actually, the exhibition shows how the transformation of glass over time has created new types of tactile experiences and thus, new ways of apprehending reality. For example, nowadays we are constantly touching our tablet’s screens; these gestures are made possible by the development of nanotechnologies and the creation of liquid crystals. These new glasses are the interfaces that allow the emergence of a kind of tactility that is in line with the previous ones. A finger that touches a screen can be compared to the gesture of pulling a curtain, don’t you think? It reveals what is hidden, but the very act of touching the screen or the veil helps us capture another type of content, the infra-thin. »

Towards an increased perception

Beside you, a child starts playing Pokemon Go on his tablet. As we all know, last summer this augmented reality game was introduced in American museums. By placing small monsters in different environments, such a game is still perceived as a simple gadget in relation to artistic problems. It is now the artists’ task to seize our new technologies and reflect on our times perceptual and memorial stakes through them.

Maud Maffei
Publié le 16/01/2017
Copyright © Observatoire de l'art contemporain - Tous droits réservés
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Version française

Larry Bell, Standing Walls à la Chinati Foundation 2014 © Chinati Foundation, Photo Alex Marks

Larry Bell, Standing Walls à la Chinati Foundation 2014
© Chinati Foundation, Photo Alex Marks