Half Empty, Since 1998

In the current climate of technological innovation and global economies, it is increasingly easy to take our cultural status-quo as an unstoppable force. But two artists are challenging that, asking questions about how we perceive the environments in which we live and how we are shaped by the objects of contemporary life.

Lorna Simpson, Call Waiting & Guillaume Bijl, Documenta Wax Museum

Marty Spellerberg. November 29th, 1998

Lorna Simpson’s Call Waiting consists of a twelve minute black and white film and twelve gelatin silver prints mounted with accompanying text. The film includes cinematic elements familiar to most viewers (a mystery man with a cigarette, a woman with a man in her bed talking to another lover), with many scenes structured in a distinctly film-noir style. Entangled in a complex web of unresolved relationships which they are trying to sort out over the telephone, characters are constantly interrupted by incoming calls and our view of the action is quickly moved from location to location before we are able to make sense of their interlocking relationships. Adding to the confusion, linguistic issues are raised as characters converse in English, Chinese, Spanish and Punjabi (languages other than English are subtitled). The photographic component is, as displayed at the Art Gallery of Ontario, seen first and presents the viewer with the set of people and situations, without the dialogue of the film, even farther separated- connected only through their shared interaction with the telephone and their relationship to it at certain, stated times.

Guillaume Bijl’s Documenta Wax Museum is shown at The Art Gallery of Ontario in a royal blue room within a room, with the obvious portal labeled “enter.” Inside are three displays with spotlights on wax figures and their props, each personalities from the history of the Documenta international exhibition held every five years in Kassel, Germany. After viewing the three figures viewers wander through the exit portal, as one would into another room of figures.

Both exhibitions examine the logic in social realities, with Simpson focusing on how they affect our gender and racial roles and relationships, and Bijl crossing the boundaries between the contexts of art and everyday life. In Call Waiting Simpson looks at the scrambled state of interpersonal communications and the distances produced in our contemporary society. The characters exist within an environment of frustration in which they are unable to escape their alienation and find themselves drawn deeper into it as a result of their efforts. Their lives seem to be joined by their telecommunications technology, yet it is that which keeps them apart. Bijl examines popular culture representations of science and cultural history, the way artificial icons are created by our society’s often fetishistic approach to the portrayal of notable personalities. By recreating the “real world” out of context, representing spaces without their utilitarian values, his work highlights the constructed nature of cultural forms as the vessels of culture’s collective desires. These interpretations of everyday life both play with distinct effects on the viewer’s experiences with them.

Bijl’s instillation works fall under two categories- the non-real within the real; and reality within the constructed. With the wax museum he has worked in the latter format by creating a functionless, false place containing real histories. Surrounded by situations that would be banal and normal if not so completely out of context, the viewer is asked to evaluate their own experiences in this kind of a situation and often find himself/herself re-addressing their evaluations of them.

Simpson often presents us with large gaps rather than consistencies in order to question our relationship to both the subjects portrayed and the art objects themselves. We are presented with two forms of representation of the same set of characters in a situation; the film and the set of photographic prints with text. We in North America are a very visually sophisticated audience and are constantly asked to build narrative structures out of juxtaposed imagery. Simpson plays with this and disrupts our attempts by purposely making drastic genre and stylistic jumps, while we constantly attempt to build these characters into personalities. Continuing in the vein of her previous work, Interior/Exterior, Full/Empty, an installation in which she juxtaposed images of silent activities far across a river with a very intimate conversation, disrupting the relationship between intimate engagement and aloof voyeurism, Call Waiting’s broken lines of communication are paralleled by the viewers broken perception of the events and changing position in relation to them.

Where she now is able to use film to show her intentions, Simpson continues to use text on or near her photographic images to describe them while reducing the possibility of a misinterpretation by the viewer. With these she states the main topic of the work, relying on the viewer to call upon personal memories or experiences to fill in any number of sub-topics, which in turn lead to a personal exploration of the viewer’s own perceptions. While the viewer is initially presented with the photographic image and is intrigued by it, in order to interpret it he/she must approach the work and read the text, bringing his/her relationship with the art-object into question.

Both exhibitions use and make reference to technologies in distinct while different ways. In the past Simpson has challenged the accepted form of photography by making prints on felt rather than glossy paper, seeming to absorb light rather than reflect it; while in this work the use of technology is a subject rather than a means, working with the media of film and photography for the qualities of seeming objectivity they convey. Technology is showed to be the means by which the characters build walls between each other, rather than connect them as originally designed. The same technologies used to build a “real” wax museum are used by Bijl, thus challenging some of the more mainstream views that might expect an art-object to be made of carved stone or oil paint on canvas. His work is also a commentary on the “progress” we feel our civilization is making through its technology and asks questions of our automatic acceptance of that.

While I find Call Waiting to be a more accessible work than Documenta Wax Museum I can’t help but feel its impact on me is less significant. Perhaps due to the fact that, even though the issues discussed are very relevant to me personally, this is not the first time they have been raised, I found Simpson’s piece limited by its form. Although I first found Bijl’s work rather cold and analytical, it now seems to me more objective in the questions it asks and its ability to deal with large concepts ways Simpson’s character driven piece can not. I see this not as a failure of the work, but rather as a reflection on the backgrounds of the artists. Simpson, an American, is so deeply entrenched in her subject that it would be unnatural for her to approach it from in any other position than that of referencing, while the Belgian Bijl is allowed to step outside his subject before allowing us to enter it. It is clear through both of these works that if we are to survive, with this civilization or not, we will need the help of artist like these to keep questioning the status-quo. Otherwise we might be better off as sheep stampeding blindly towards an ever-nearing cliff.