‘What one can see in the light of day is always less interesting than what happens behind a pane of Glass’.
Until the 19th Century, ‘Cabinets of Curiosity’ were rooted in the marvellous and mystical, since science and reason were not yet able to explain the world appropriately. It is this early embodiment of the vitrine, rather than its later manifestation as a taxonomic showcase that has proved most durable as a tool for Contemporary art. The cabinets employed here by the artists serve to underline the nature of display through scale and substitution. The formal properties of a glass vitrine are suggestive of containment, and thus, separation or fetishisation, the result of the museum’s systemic activity. Fragments of what is ‘out there’, in the world are brought in for scrutiny and display, protected by the glass screen of a vitrine; hence, it serves to draw our attention to, not what it contains, but all that it does not: a fossil or a prehistoric hunter’s tool then gives rise to an entire world that cannot be observed but must be imagined. It is the cabinet’s inability to contain that ensures continuing interest, acting like ’a box in the world theatre’, by promoting the idea of (a space of) art, but in a condensed form. Where the cabinet of curiosity became a window onto an exotic realm, the ‘White Cube’ shut it again, insisting on the exclusion of all but art from its ethereal body. In the Contemporary, this space is once more opened up to the world, yet it is one rendered in miniature, located in the head of the artist, an essentially private and reticent place.
Marcel Proust, on a visit to the Louvre, set about likening the faces in paintings to those of people he knew, arguing that things only made sense when looking at them in the light of one’s own experience. Thus, ‘in reality every reader is, while he is reading, the reader of his own self. The writer’s work is merely a kind of optical instrument which he offers to the reader to enable him to discern what, without this book, he would perhaps never have experienced in himself. And the recognition by the reader in his own self of what the book says is the proof of its veracity.’ Proust’s analysis, perhaps overly self-referential and introspective, nonetheless reveals something about the spectator’s need for identification with a subject. The familiar, far from being solely repetitive, can then be employed as a means of generating new perspectives.
In 1969, Alan Bean, one of the astronauts from Apollo 12, joined one of the most select ‘clubs’ in the universe by walking on the moon. Later, he became a painter of lunar scenes, incorporating relics in the form of pieces from his spacesuit and actual moon dust into his work; when asked about his choice of subject matter he argued that, having witnessed locations that no other artist had ever experienced first hand, he found that nothing else on earth compared. In a recent documentary, Bean described how orbital distance allows astronauts to hold the earth in the palm of their hand; only when scale is reduced by distance, when the observed is removed from the object, can it be fully seen; as detail recedes, and scale is reduced, the planet comes alive as a thing to be (be)held. Thus, the place that is intensely familiar, our world, turns alien when seen from a different vantage point. The addition of the human hand as a frame returns it to a personalised experience, rendering it marvellous in the process.
Similarly, Pippa Gatti relates to the exoticism of distance by narrating it remotely; her works depart from the idea of exploration, depicting moon landings and epic mountain treks as they chronicle the breathtaking scenery opened up by human endeavour; however, the works are redolent of a certain aesthetic promulgated by the visual reportage of the National Geographic Magazine in its heyday, in the period of late-Modernism, a time of optimism and desire to uncover and display all that was hidden and remote in the world. In this way, Gatti confronts us with an aesthetics of substitution where events and actions taking place elsewhere are celebrated. Exploration once borne out of curiosity and thirst for knowledge has long since developed a tinge of nostalgia; the nostalgia of the ‘Golden Age’ of investigative travel that took us to far-flung places – from the peaks of Everest to the bottom of the sea, and to the moon. This melancholic nostalgia has, according to the author Celeste Olalquiaga, produced a surfeit of souvenirs commemorating the events, from alpine snowdomes to plastic models of spaceshuttles. These forms of kitsch, she argues, are constantly reliving their own death as they scuttle between the forfeited moment and its repeated loss. Kitsch may then be seen as ‘the debris of the aura: an irregular trail of glittery dust whose imminent evanescence makes it extremely tantalising.’
According to Georges Bataille, objects serve to stand in for earlier, originary objects, whose passing and ruination is memorialised through concealment. The aspect of scale in the sculptures of Neil Hedger reminds us of the possibility of exchange, for if something can be larger or smaller, then it must be possible to switch the object entirely; in this way, one object conceals (and includes) another. ‘Reality is mobile. There do not exist things made, but only things in making, not states that remain fixed, but only states in process of change.’ Henri Bergson’s assertion might be applied to the fluid nature and materials in Hedger’s figures that appear to be growing or melting; moreover, the distinction of the human body is eroded through the addition of rabbit’s ears and dogtails, echoing Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s notion of ‘becoming animal’; here, rather than searching for human meaning, we are drawn to the anomalous character of an animal that frees us from the ‘moorings in the drama of human interests’. Released from the need to respond to an already given position, the sculptures deflect the desire to search for sense, for stability, and instead transform perception into something that is bound to remain beyond reach.
This lack of fixity of an a priori position resonates with Dan Shaw-Town’s open-ended process, where the goal of the enquiry is not known at the outset. Though often familiar in appearance, his sculptures and objects, marked by a sense of loss and abandonment, retain a certain communicative reticence: a careworn football, picked apart and turned inside-out becomes an anthropomorphic object that both disturbs and amuses the spectator who remains unable to engage with it. His folded, clasped, flattened, uncertain objects, yield initially to the artist’s hand who erases and tarnishes them, and then submit to the viewer’s tactile gaze, occasioned by surface and texture; according to the artist, it is ‘what the hands get up to whilst the mind is elsewhere’, leading to a tautological system of endless outcomes in which the objects act as props or latent performers. Accordingly Shaw-Town’s works correspond to the contemporary condition of displacement, an ‘elsewhere’, always dislodging and substituting, moving around and through the world of objects.
This restless otherness of place returns us to the idea of miniaturisation as a way of describing the position of the passive observer, the viewer, onlooker and spectator; whereas the participant in an event always encounters the world as a palpable true scale experience, the viewer simply looks at the minimized subject as if through the glass of a showcase. The vitrine is thus the epitome of the relationship between viewer and viewed. Although all is revealed to the eye, it has no means of comprehension for all is coded. Understanding, then, is qualified by the ability to render things into images, and the artist’s world beneath our gaze is nothing if not imagined anew.