Originally published on nextmonet.com, November 1999
Searching for a Tuna Fish Sandwich
I got lost looking for Searchlight: Consciousness at the Millennium, an exhibition of thirty international contemporary artists addressing the elusive concepts of awareness, perception and experience. Paralleling the way our minds meander as they try to process information, I went in the wrong entrance and had to feel my way towards the exhibition, stumbling upon the extraterrestrial looking pods housing many of the video elements of the show. These angular freestanding frameworks covered with a fuzzy texture inhabit student space in a functioning school, an appropriate place for an exhibition endeavoring to delve into the active life of the mind.
This ambitious show is the first of this scale for the eagerly awaited CCAC (California College of Arts and Crafts) Institute, a high profile exhibition program headed by Larry Rinder. Rinder, who was also recently named to the prestigious search committee for the next Whitney Biennial, has coined the term "Consciousness Art". Consciousness Art, more than depicting ideas about consciousness, (consciousness being roughly defined as the inner life of the mind mixed with the subjective something that makes us all unique, setting us apart from both animals and computers), makes these ideas available to be seen, felt and integrated by the viewer.
William James, the "father" of American psychology tells us that "consciousness is not a thing but a process." Consciousness is not the body nor is it the mind, it is the interaction between the two. It is the connection between the mind and body that achieves consciousness that remains mysterious, this intangible connection, this process that artists continue to explore. If artists knew what the process was, or how it worked, the magical something that makes art art, would vanish. Current cultural critics Martin Jay and Jonathan Crary focus on the "constructed" parts of visual consciousness, the ways our perceptions are structured by cultural phenomenon such as language. Language, however, being text based, symbolic, metaphoric, etc÷ is limited only by our own limitations.
The first piece I encountered, "Vexation Island" (1997) by Canadian artist Rodney Graham uses strong symbolic language to consider the meaning(s) of consciousness. Projected on a wide screen in a darkened room was a deserted desert island save for an unconscious man in 18th or 19th Century dress. He was washed ashore with only a parrot for company. He awakens under a palm tree in the scorching sun with a bruise on his head, rising to shake the tree in order to pry loose a coconut. He is successful, but, the falling fruit hits him on the head and rolls into the sea, and he falls back into unconsciousness. This event is played over and over again. Similarly, I kept returning to "Vexation Island" to ponder the rich imagery (the sea- "of consciousness", the eternal return of the tides, the coconut perhaps doubling as a head as well as the fruit of knowledge) and explore how the protagonist's struggle to awake (gain consciousness) in his "rational" mind evokes our battles to achieve full or even semi-consciousness. It also summoned forth our conflicting search for conscious unconsciousness on the "perfect" deserted tropical island.
Ever since the advent of photography freed artists from the direct representation of nature (consciousness directed outward) in the 19th century, artists have been exploring felt experience and the abstraction of that experience (consciousness directed inward). In "Searchlight" (1986-94), perhaps the inspiration for the exhibition title if not for the exhibition itself, Gary Hill illuminates our position as constructors of the world we perceive. A telescope pans across a darkened room projecting from its barrel a circular image of sea and sky; the image moves along the wall going in and out of focus as the faint sounds of waves are heard. The apparatus (perhaps a stand in for a body or a sentient being) projects the image instead of receiving it, metaphorically turning the tables on what is real vs. what is created in our consciousness. Hill's piece also stimulates the idea that there is nothing left to discover in the physical world so we turn inward to the spiritual for illumination of meaning.
30 seconds of illumination is all you are allowed before the light is extinguished in Douglas Gordon's "30 Seconds Text" (1996). Written on the wall are the events of an experiment done in France in 1905 where a guillotined man was apparently conscious and responsive to his name for 30 seconds after his head was severed. In turn you are given 30 seconds of light to read the results of the experiment. It took me two tries to finish the text and each time the quick switch into darkness terrified me as much as the text intrigued me. This gruesome piece is an effective if literal (as well as very visceral) exploration of the mind/body problem: the disembodied head living on without it’s body exemplifies the gap between rational thought and the "irrational" sensations that inform those thoughts, connecting the viewer to the sensation of disembodied awareness.
Getting my head together, I left the darkness of the dense and oppressive pods and entered the light and airy main gallery. I continued my search for enlightenment, entering a room filled with simple paintings on paper. Very quiet. Very meditative. These anonymous untitled works on paper from India circa 1995 serve to make physical the spiritual, attempting to use a symbolic language (circles, squares, spirals, ellipses, rectangles) to touch upon a kind of transcendence. We turn from the sublime to the ridiculous in Pascale Wiedemann's Dr. Seuss inspired installation "Heimlich" (1996), a multi-colored striped knitted muffler completely covering a TV (except for the screen) and cord like a TV cozy. The screen alternately presents close-ups panning around the knitted object interspersed with images of the interior of the object in a seemingly never-ending spiral, endlessly turning inward; like the circles that you find in the windmills of your mind. Adjacently, Gillian Wearing's video "2 Into 1" (1997) poignantly examines what other people are thinking by switching the voices of a mother and her two sons. The boys lip-sync their mother's words about them and vice versa. Searing honesty floods this simple but powerful work with potency, giving new meaning to the phrase getting into someone's head.
An elevator then transported me to the second floor gallery. Near the entryway resides "Abstract Painting no. 3" (1960-63) by Ad Reinhardt, the noted mid-century abstract expressionist. The oldest work in the exhibition, this piece at first appears all black but upon observation six subtly different shades of dark blue emerge in the shape of a cross. These mists of color float over the dark picture plane, creating an otherworldly environment and stimulating the viewer's sense of vision to become aware of what the catalogue calls, "the feeling of seeing". Like Reinhardt's (and the work of many of his contemporaries) black on black painting, Agnes Martin's white on white painting, "Untitled #3" (1993), serves to slow us down in order to find shades of significance. Martin, often considered to be the link between abstract expressionism and minimalism, has written that the subject of her paintings, "is not what is seen. It is what is known forever in the mind." Her meditations on whiteness serve as tools to enlarge conscious awareness and the possibilities inherent in our surroundings.
Against the robust silence emanating from the work of Reinhardt and Martin, a cacophony of noise emerged. Barking coming from either a fox, or a man pretending to be a fox, features in "The Voice of the American Gray Fox", (1984), by The Museum of Jurassic Technology, a quirky institution based in LA that investigates the real and the unreal, creating displays that question the meaning of truth. Opera blares from British artist Martin Creed’s videos in which he practices alchemy, changing everyday matter into precious metals. Adding to the confusion is the voice of an erudite woman, Adrian Piper, dissecting the societal ramifications of whiteness vis a vis blackness in her well-known video installation "Cornered" from 1988. Allying these artists with Reinhardt and Martin show us that there are many formats that can investigate meaning and that there is both truth in beauty, beauty in truth.
"Tunafish Sandwich Piece" (1964) by Yoko Ono expressively and expansively speaks to many of the ideas in this show. "Imagine one thousand suns in the sky at the same time. Let them shine for one hour. Then, let them gradually melt into the sky. Make one tunafish sandwich and eat." Ono's unpretentious words written on a small piece of paper tacked on the wall take the everyday and transform it, melting the minimal, the meditative, the physical and the conceptual together to create a consciousness we can all feast upon (along with our lunches).
As the 20th century wanes, the concept of consciousness has become more and more central to the making and to the understanding of contemporary art. However, virtually all art attempts to address consciousness in some way. Or wants to. Most, if not all art wants us to see things differently, to question what is. That being said, this collection of artworks does provide a vehicle for the viewer's own experience, allowing us to become more conscious of consciousness, more aware of our own awareness. What we do with this increased attentiveness is up to us.
Imagine yourself looking at a blank canvas for more than 30 seconds on a deserted tropical island while eating a tunafish sandwich. All in all, Searchlight is food for thought.
by Amy Berk