The definition of an elephant undertaken as a collective and cumulative task by six blindmen each of whom felt a different part of the animal’s body is the basis of a familiar joke. The unlikely, not to say, preposterous, conjunction of such weird components as an ivory tusk, serpentine trunk, monumental floppy ear and picayune tail offers a witty point of departure for Nate Cassie’s installation olifant/Funhouse. Sited in what appears to be a corridor leading from the principal gallery to the workshops beyond, it consists of a soft grey “leatherette” wall whose surface recalls the hide of the proverbial beast, punctured, seemingly randomly, by a number of small oculi. Pressing an inquisitive eye to these tiny apertures, the spectator observes a number of seemingly discrete spaces, spaces whose dimensions and character could not easily be reconciled as belonging to a single milieu.
Or could they? Do these apparently irreconcilable vistas in fact all belong to the same site, as do the similarly anomalous trunk, and other appendages of the memorable subject of the incredulous blindmen’s astonished investigation? And what to make of the bizarre fact that the viewer on several occasions sees her own image looking out, returning her inquiring gaze?
Stepping back from the soft, yielding wall, the bemused spectator may then notice several additional oculi inserted in the window wall opposite. In this case, the vistas opened up are incommensurable with what can easily be verified to be present. From the panoply of competing perspectival distortions found in these spyholes arises the second referent in Cassie’s title, the Funhouse. The oculi, set in the glass, act as prostheses; they aid the naked eye, enhancing vision, as do magnifying glasses and telescopes. But instead of rendering visible what is otherwise unseeable because it’s too small or too distant, these particular prostheses offer a differently configured rendering of what is already unproblematically visible through the adjacent panes. In providing an alternative, one that is far from conventional or convenient in its reordering of place and space, they become an allegory for the act of seeing in its relation to the artwork. Far from offering a (transparent) window onto a world beyond, the conventional role of mimetically based styles of post-Renaissance painting, these oeils-de-boeuf proclaim the highly conventionalized and coded character of such representations, along with their attendant acts of apprehension. Not only is the viewing of any artwork literally and metaphorically a tightly framed activity, but what is revealed through the lens of art is not identical to, and perhaps not always readily reconcilable with, the world as it appears in its familiar and normative guises. Similarly, how the artwork is apprehended depends on what the viewer brings to the situation; her presuppositions, prior experience, pre-existing ideas and expectations.
Inscribing herself into the work, metaphorically she projects herself onto the object of scrutiny, which literally occurs here in Cassie’s telling sleight of hand. Armed with these salutary reminders, the spectator turns back once more to the wall behind whose comfortably inviting surface snugly accommodates her prying frame, as it bends, stretches, and twists in order to discern every detail from within these widely dispersed openings.
Perhaps what is most remarkable about what is revealed through the eyeholes is how unremarkable Cassie’s scenes are. A figure in an otherwise empty, cavernous room; a corridor harshly lit by a bevy of fluorescent lights; a streetscape seen as if from a driver’s viewpoint; a figure bending forward so that only the top of its head is visible…. If several are obviously video images, others are probably manipulated views of the actual space behind, but illusion and reality so seamlessly fuse as to make this distinction irrelevant, even meaningless. Either way, such vistas are far from the spectacular, teasing or revelatory scenarios that might have been anticipated, given Duchamp’s celebrated precedent, amongst many others. Yet it is the very ordinariness and indeterminacy of Cassie’s ostensible subjects that permits the elephantine allusion to operate so effectively. Instead of revealing exotic, phantasmatic or enigmatic vistas as does Étant Donnée, Cassie’s installation insists on what is familiar and mundane but now decontextualized—or, better, recontextualized.
Imaginative synthesis, the act of making sense from the miscellany of what is given, becomes thereby foregrounded. Even though so well accustomed, so habituated, to the singular configuration of elements that comprise an elephant as to fail to remember the initial feeling of awe and amazement that the first encounter, in childhood, provoked, most adults would find it difficult to explain in what way their combination makes sense, that is, what determines it. The sense of wonder and fascination with which the young observe these marvelous mastodons is analogous to the delight in the abnormal and illusory that the funhouse vouchsafes adults and children alike. Counterpointed to the investigative experience offered by the window’s oculi, this entree into the magical and marvelous recalls another of art’s time-honored functions, to provide spaces for the imaginary, the fantastic and the hypothetical, spaces that border on the ineffable.
Lynne Cooke is the curator of Dia Center for the Arts in New York.