THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN SEEING, EXPERIENCING AND WITNESSING

Eva Wittocx - 2001

 

 

 

For centuries, the concept of 'visual art' was mainly understood to mean paintings, sculptures and objects:  forms of art to be looked at and to be identified with. The subject, the way in which it is represented (the style) and the underlying iconography,  were the points of interest. With the advent of new media the field of visual art has broadened considerably, with sound, photography, film, smell, digital media and the like now being included. At the same time the field of perception in experiencing art has also expanded: contemporary works of art can consist not only of sound or image recordings, but they can sometimes also be felt or experienced physically. In the Sixties there were numerous artists who actively capitalised on this. Instead of just 'looking at' works of art, audiences became an integral part of the work itself. Minimal Art, or with artists such as Bruce Nauman or Vito Acconci, viewers were addressed and challenged to assume a more active attitude towards the work of art. Minimal artists tried to do this by making the work of art itself as simple as possible so that attention would be directed to the 'here and now', to the deployment in space and to the relationship with the viewer. Artists creating installations force the spectator into a certain behaviour pattern by means of spatial constructions that stimulate the senses or through light, recording equipment, sensors or sound. The assumption is that the figure of the spectator is necessary for the work to be completed. Not as a permanent filling‑in, but  temporarily, for the duration of the experience.

 

These qualities ‑ temporariness, spatial conditions and manipulation of the spectator ‑ were initially judged in a negative way by various critics in the Sixties. One opponent who managed to get a public debate going was the American Michael Fried who, in his essay Art and Objecthood [1], gives short shrift to Minimal Art and various forms of conceptual art. Good art, according to Fried, is concerned with purifying its own medium, seeks its essential quali­ties and leaves out what is superfluous. When sculpture starts to concentrate on the 'circumstances' of the work of art, however, this can only be pernicious. Fried calls the taking into account of the viewer, space and temporariness 'theatrical qualities', which thus have no place in art: 'art degenerates as it approaches the condition of theatre'. Yet it soon became evident that what Fried classified as negative would immeasurably occupy coming generations of artists. Numerous valuable forms of art take these aspects as their starting point: installations, conceptual art, happenings, performances, video art, environments, etc.

 

Wim Catrysse's video installations are intended to make the spectator aware of his own viewing and experiencing. An important aspect of this involves the addressing of the viewer and the way the work is integrated into the space. On the one hand Catrysse's video films are themselves an investigation into the relationship between the body and its surroundings. The characters are often situated in closed spaces that seem to determine their behaviour or state of mind. On the other hand there is the presentation of the films. Each video has its own 'environment' or way it is set up. Usually this closely corresponds to the 'filmed' space in which the film takes place, which means that the spectator in a certain sense is situated in a continuation of the projected space. In Deer‑Stalking (1996), for example, we see at the end of a dark corridor a projection of a shadowy figure with deer‑like antlers and hooves. This image becomes visible in which makes it difficult for us to decipher the movement of the figure. The character is making wooden movements ‑ almost animal‑like ‑ in a narrow space, approaching and retreating from the camera as though he feels hunted. Since the viewer identifies with the camera's viewpoint, as well as through the similarity of the space in which the viewer is situated, the interrupted images come across as somewhat threatening and intriguing.

 

Catrysse's work originates in simple actions or proceedings carried out in self‑constructed spaces with limited dimensions. The camera not only records the actions. The positioning in front of the scene ‑ static, close to, rotating or as partner ‑ is of crucial importance for the impact that the images have. Yet Catrysse does not operate the camera 'manually', in the sense of zooming in on a scene or letting the camera actively explore the space. Nor are the recordings played around with or manipulated afterwards. The camera is involved as a constitutive element in what happens and does not simply record the scene. Besides the figure of the actor and the spectator, one can almost regard the camera as a third participant. In Pursuit (1998) we see a figure walking around in a circular corridor. Since the person walks out of the picture, reappears on the other side, continues under the camera and appears again in the background, a sense of disorientation arises. Just because the actor seems to be playing a sort of challenging game with the camera ‑ which is itself turning in the circular space – the viewer feels addressed, as though he or she is being challenged by the actor.

 

The tension of the body in space is heightened through the viewer's identi­fication with the viewpoint of the camera. The artist uses the camera to focus on certain actions, choosing which facets of the scene to draw attention to. The possibility of exposing certain aspects of reality and depicting them in an intense way is one of the virtues of the medium of film. The lens opens up a reality that surpasses the spectrum of our senses, showing what is in fact optically invisible. Walter Benjamin analyzed the properties of the new media of photography and film, positioning them in respect of traditional forms of art. In his famous essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936) [2] he writes, 'for the entire spectrum of opti­cal, and now also acoustical, perception the film has brought about a simi­lar deepening of apperception.  (…) Evidently a different nature opens itself to the camera than opens to the naked eye ‑ if only because an unconsciously penetrated space is substituted for a space consciously explored by man'. Through applying the different techniques associated with film, certain patterns can be revealed that are invisible to the naked eye. In order to show the singularity of film, Benjamin makes a comparison with the practice of a surgeon. In performing an operation, the surgeon pene­trates fully into the patient, dissecting him internally so that the distance between examiner and subject virtually disappears. In the same way the camera also makes different detailed cuts out of reality, always from a certain viewpoint and in a very intense way. Benjamin compares this attitude of the surgeon‑filmmaker with that of the magician‑painter. The magician is mysterious, works by means of the laying on of hands and retains a distance towards his patient. He sees the latter as an organic unity with whom he enters into a man‑to‑man relationship. The same goes for the painter who approaches his subject intuitively rather than scientifically. The principle quality that Benjamin ascribes to painting and which is lacking in reproducible forms of art like film is the auratic. By this he means that a painting is always a unity that emanates a mysterious atmosphere in which a certain relationship to the viewer is assumed.

 

Even though Wim Catrysse also employs the medium of film, his work is actually situated somewhere in between the two attitudes towards reality assumed by the surgeon and the magician. On the one hand he uses the camera to make deliberate shots of certain actions, focusing in such a way as to ensure that superfluous information falls outside the frame. On the other hand this focusing is not being used to foreground details or to develop a narrative line. Every video piece has a unity, possesses a specific, charged atmosphere, immediately evokes certain sensations in the viewer. Catrysse's images cannot be 'read’ in the sense of a search for details, plot or hidden information. They are a lump of stimuli that have a physical appeal. In this sense they are more like paintings. Catrysse uses the camera as a means of constructing a compact picture, which is what a painter does in making a composition. Si  Ça Vous Arrive Ce Soir (1998) shows a frontal close‑up of a face at the edge of the frame against a dark background. What we see is the reflection of a face on a round mirror surface, so that the face appears distorted. Suddenly a sort of click can be heard and the face jumps to the other side of the frame. To the viewer it seems as though a frac­tion has been left out, as though an invisible event is absent. The sound that accompanies the transition is in fact the bending of the mirror surface. The alternation of the two faces, on the left and right‑hand sides of the image, in combination with the alteration between silence and sound and the presentation as an oblique projection on the gallery wall, make this piece come across as a total experience.

 

Although the medium of film preemi­nently lends itself to focusing on aspects of reality, Wim Catrysse nevertheless inverts this quality in a para­doxical way. Instead of clear, legible images,we as viewers get the idea that certain crucial information is lacking. There is a sort of failure of 'grasping' in his work, which also means that his films cannot be understood as purely 'surgical' or dissecting in the context of Benjamin's explanation. It is precisely this disruption that lends Catrysse's images their strength and impact. In contemplating an image or object we mentally order all the stimuli so that we can recognise things immediately and are able to deduce cause and effect, When our perception is disrupted, when that which our senses discern does not seem to be sufficient to assemble a coherent and logical image, there arises a void. This sense of discomfort or disorientation makes us feel physically involved as viewer and leads us to search for possibilities to fill in the resistant images. Bruce Nauman’s installations have a similar underlying idea, which he expresses as 'Giving information and at the same time withholding a part, and trying to get underneath the surface by not stating it'. [3]

In some of the works, such as Deer-Stalking, Untitled (Shadow) or Pursuit, the image is semi‑dark or intermittently lit and we are unable to see clearly what is happening or how the character is behaving. Other video works create this feeling of discomfort through the scale of a particular shot. Such as the hugely enlarged and mirrored objects in Contractions (1999), or Passage (1998) where, at the end of what seems to be a long dark tunnel, a mouth suddenly appears and blows air through it, thus negating our experience of space, In Unmastered Behaviour (2000) four similar images are projected onto the four walls of a square space, each one showing a person in a small square space that appears to be violently shaking so that the actor has difficulty maintaining his balance. We can't tell immediately what the direct cause of this behaviour is. At first sight they seem to be subject to an indefinable force. After a while it appears that they are in a rotating space where the centrifugal force

keeps throwing them against the wall. Since the camera is positioned high above the turning cabin, one has insufficient elements that could lead to identification. The force of the image as well as the fact that the viewer is in a similar space causes him or her to become mentally unbalanced. The juxtaposition of the behaviour of the different characters gives the whole thing a quasi‑scientific nature, as though an inventory were being made of variations in the behaviour of a body in a rotating space.

 

Since Catrysse's images are difficult to fathom, our own experiences are sharpened, 'Illegibility' or 'vagueness' is not, then, the theme in itself, but rather a means of evoking certain perceptions. For the artist it is not at all important that the necessary information or the mystery surrounding a particular work remains preserved. On the contrary, he has published photographs showing the constructions that lie at the basis of his works, such as the cabin in Unmastered Behaviour or the circular tunnel from Pursuit. 'Knowing' the underlying set in no way negates the strength of the impulses that give rise to the image.

 

With his most recent exhibition in Glasgow the circumstances were such that, together with the video piece Sudden Death (2001), the object in which the scenes were shot was also presented. The 8 metres long, wedge­ shaped object with rounded edges contains a staircase and two lying/standing places for the actors. As the volume slowly tilts, the actor goes from a lying position to an upright one so that he can then walk via the staircase to the other person lying lower down. After this he returns to his standing place, until the volume tilts again and he is brought into a lying position, so that the other person is now upright and can descend the staircase. The experiences of the actors in the closed space are put to the test. They have to experience themselves when their position changes and when they can step onto the staircase. They are alternately active and passive, subject and object, perpetrator and victim. At the same time they are continually confronted with the reactions or perceptions of the fellow‑actor, whom the spectator can also follow on monitors. The scene is simultaneously recorded via two camera‑eyes in the wall above the actors. Catrysse shows the alternating rising and descending of the actors on two monitors. For the spectator it is very strange to see someone walk down a stair and stand upright, but then suddenly notice that the position has to change because of the confrontation with another figure.

 

By withholding information a tension is created which causes the content of the work to be folded back upon the audience. The lacunas in the creation of the image generate a sort of irritation, a desire to 'understand' that works in a psychological way. The darkness in which the scenes are shot promotes this. The reliability of our experience is called into question, the images give space to the imagination as well as to the complete spectrum of perceptions for a personal filling in of the work. The body should not be understood here merely as an instrument but rather as a personal means of expression, a whole against which we test everything and give it a symbolic import. On a greater scale than with popular feature films, every interpretation or

reading of Catrysse's images is partly subjective. It can also be argued that each of us, as spectators of the video images, experiences them in our own way. The title of Catrysse's solo exhibi­tion in Argos at the beginning of this year capitalised on this. Witness. Listen and Sign as Having Seen refers to the fact that each person is responsible for their own experience. Catrysse himself refers to events such as when two people see the same bad accident. However, when the different witnesses are later asked what they saw, then each of them has a different story.[4] Arresting experiences are mentally reconstructed and filled in or complemented differently by everyone. The artist invites us to give space to our empathy, to bear witness, even if this means that what we see and hear is personally coloured. Witness means that one makes a statement concerning one's presence at an occurrence or action. Catrysse wants the spectator to become aware of his or her own physi­cality and of the visual stimuli that find their sounding board there and give it meaning. In order to make a declaration one has to 'believe' in what one has experienced and assume responsibility for one's own experience. This is just what the works of Catrysse bring about; one does not just see them, they are also experienced in a conscious way and personally coloured in.

 

 

 

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[1] Michael Fried, Art and Objecthood, in G, Battcock

(ed.), Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology, New York,

1968: p.116‑147

 

[2] Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of

Mechanical  Reproduction

 

[3] Coosje van Bruggen, Bruce Nauman, New York,

1998: p. 12.

 

[4] Interview with Sam Ainsley in Wim Catrysse.

WITNESS. Listen... and sign as having seen,

2001, Argos Editions, Brussels

 

 

 

 

 

Published in: A-Prior #6, autumn/winter 2001 - 2002