For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction
Isaac Newton's third law of motion
a portion of Beth Campbell's The Following Room (2007) at PNCA
Art can get lost in the paradoxes it courts and sometimes that is a good thing.
Yes, some contemporary art is designed to ingratiate itself by reaffirming the
tastes of those who see it, whereas other work is designed to confront and challenge
those expectations. Beth Campbell's show at PNCA's Feldman gallery
is mostly of the challenging journey
variety. It has a kind of magic despite the fact it goes pretty much nowhere through its use of a series of faux mirrors. The effect is a bit like the Bermuda
Triangle in an Ikea store, or a kind of physical paradox where pop culture meets nameless individual.
The important part is how viewer gets a little lost and discombobulated by the
experience forcing them to question the way optics and cognition converge.
Getting lost has an important and pervasive history that can't be ignored.
Great literary characters like Melville's Ishmael or cheesy self help books
are both built on the idea that one has to lose themselves in order to find
oneself. In Chinese philosophy
focused on the internalization of one's external world to stay true
to it (as selfish selflessness?). Similarly the western philosopher Wittgenstein
focused on the human tendency to solipsisticly see one's self as the center
of the universe. Carl Jung considered getting lost part of the "Hero's Journey" too. Then there is the long history of ascetic monks who withdraw
from society to get closer to their God. Similarly Epicureans withdrew to a
private life of personal appetites that seems to be a Yuppie koan these days.
Of course there are dangers and merits to all of these approaches.
Yayoi Kusama's INFINITY MIRRORED ROOM 2002 rain in early spring
(2002) at CAMK
Today, the human impulse to get lost in a world of one's own devising seems
to be especially relevelant. Of particular note is the online popularity of
and in recent
political history the use of faulty weapons of mass destruction assumptions
to justify the invasion of Iraq.
These are restless times but change seems far off. This peculiar "American
Stasis" speaks to a general frustration over being stuck in a war without end and
the continuing impasse over the same old problems of education, health care,
infrastructure and ecology. This societal stasis underscores an uneasy American
psyche that parallels a longstanding existential malaise in Europe. In other
words paradox is big right now.
In contemporary art Yayoi Kusama uses polka dots and often mirrors to create
endlessly uneasy similarities. Likewise, Olafur Eliasson, Josiah McElhny, Damien
and David Altmejd all use mirrors or mirror images to evoke
both the infinite and the solipsistic.
, one of contemporary art's most promising new poets of the visual
stalemate. Her work resonates between infinite choices and the existentially
similar outcomes that arise from making those decisions. Campbell has done maniacal
videos of herself doing the
same thing in different places
as well as charts
of her various options
and the predicted outcomes in the past but her latest
installation at PNCA seems to get at the heart of the issue, getting lost within
the options present right where you are. Not an easy thing to do in an age of
global positioning systems and signature architecture
or is it?
Titled "I can't quite place it" the text outside the Feldman gallery walls
for the first time in recent memory seem like an integral part of the show.
Sure it's your standard black letters on the standard art institution white
wall but it feels like an "institutional"
correction make that
a "zeitgeist critique."
It's not a question directed at anyone, it's a mantra, a motto and a probably
The Following Room (2007)
The title of the main installation "The Following Room" inside the
gallery certainly supports that institutional critique reading while further
What we find in The Following Room is faux illusion. It is constructed as a series of IKEA-like
furniture vignettes that each sport a lamp, chair, book, an unused doggie chew bone,
candle reading glasses and a notepad with what we assume is the artist's phone
# since it says "Me". Banal as it gets really, except that Campbell
has repeatedly cloned this room, installing most as mirror images to one another.
A dropped ceiling grid for acoustical tile and some Plexiglas rods that mimic the
edges of mirrored glass nearly completes the illusion of mirrored home furnishings of this
not exactly fun house too. The illusion is purposefully incomplete too because the
asymmetrical nature of the Feldman gallery allows one to orient oneself slightly
amongst the disorienting white walls. This element is very intriguing.
Unlike a MC Escher style visual bon mot
, The Following Room is a question
inducing experience and owes more to Robert
Iriwin's reflexive or zen sense
(and maybe his famous student Ed Ruscha's
mirror image paintings). Still, the solipsistic tone of the work is definitely
more East Coast and neurotic with the telling inclusion of a book whose title
is, "The Other Side of Me." The effect is a compressed, slightly irritating
form of internal self awareness that allows the viewer and work to both resonate
and establish boundaries. Since borders of the various rooms are illusionary
it makes one question the viewer/art boundary.
The installation is effective in these respects; it's more than a sight gag
or a fun house and it redirects the viewer's outward gaze inward where one wonders
whether they are shopping or trespassing?
probably both. The following
room is an intellectual irritant, a study in the pleasant aspects of symmetry
and an experiential placebo effect. Is that enough? Frankly, I'm on a fence
about it seeming too witty and entertaining but I think that's the stalemate
Cambell is seeking.
The untitled bent wire sculpture in the other room seems underwhelming considering
the stalemated chess match played out in "The Following Room." Similar
sculptures have had names like "There's no such thing as a good decision"
so sure it's a visual illustration of Campbell's option tree lists but optically
it lacks the pop over familiarity and punch of The Following Room. In this case
the abstracted distance is less convincing and the work of Donald Judd, or sol
LeWitt make it look half hearted market fodder.
Campbell is due for a solo show at the Whitney in February 2008 and perhaps that
is the best time to really gauge this artist. She's both intriguing and irritating
in a good way but one wonders how much range she has. Still this show is also
a major coup for PNCA whose new Ford endowment
has delivered Portland a very
Is Beth Campbell all smoke and mirrors, is she just another entertaining artist
that major museums need to bring people in the door? Maybe, maybe not
I sense that with pieces like The Following Room she might have her finger on
the pulse of something telling without giving us anything specific. I can't place it
indeed; perhaps getting lost isn't such a bad thing.
Wherever you go, there you are
The phone number calls a woman named Melissa (or Michelle, I can't remember) that lives in Washington DC.
Thanks for the interesting review. I had a slightly different take on this piece I'd like to share. While this work is formally similar to Kusama, I find it to operate in a way that is exactly the obverse. A disorienting perceptual shift definitely results from The Following Room, but unlike Infinity Mirrored Room or Samaras’ Mirrored Room, I don’t think that is the ultimate subject. In fact, while Kusama and others use the ACTUAL to create an ILLUSION, this piece uses an ILLUSION to create the ACTUAL. The illusion is itself an illusion - as you say, a faux illusion. So rather than feeling “lostness”, I find this to be an incredibly lucid statement.
My thoughts turned to a different subtext, that of the expression of “individuality” in a mass-produced culture. It is possible (and fairly common) to create a “personalized” living space entirely from mass-produced goods, which in their differences from one another, are “infra-thin”. The Following Room carries this idea to a logical extreme, and rather than getting lost in an infinity of self-reflections, it is precisely the lack of reflection that gives this piece away (and roots it solidly in the real).
I thought about adding in the Samaras reference too but you are right that Campbell is working in the inverse...I described it above as "faux illusion" (which is why is why I wanted to point out how Eliasson etc utilize mirrors as mirrors).... instead Campbell creates a kind of amnesia of design through serial installation.
It's definitely less driven by visual analogs (mirror reflections) than the real (and serialized) furniture etc... but Campbell still utilizes the illusion of mirrors to discomboblate the viewer... in many ways Kusama with her mirrored rooms is trying to orient the viewer in a infinite multiplicity. Campbell is less vast, and more about how the terminus of an installation synchs up with self awareness. I think Kusama tries to blow minds, Campbell is more about an more inward, reflective state (all puns intended).