Book Review: The Paradoxical Object

Meredith Hoy (PhD)

Art Department, University of Massachusetts, Boston

Joan Truckenbrod’s new book, The Paradoxical Object: Video Film Sculpture, contains a fascinating compendium of artworks that fall within her categorization of “video film sculpture.” In the book, Truckenbrod seeks to identify the changes brought to sculpture by immaterial, contingent and ephemeral forces, such as light and sound. The stability of the object is challenged by these influences, reforming sculpture into a more fluid medium. The paradox of “video film sculpture” resides in the juxtaposition of fixed elements with those that are both transitory and fleeting. As Truckenbrod states in her first chapter, the “immateriality of light, juxtaposed with the solidity of form, the temporality of video in contrast with the static nature of object, creates paradoxes that stretch the context of sculpture.” [1] Thus through the influence of projection, the original, formerly stable, object becomes dissolved or transmuted.

Truckenbrod’s theoretical points are often made via the close analysis of particular artworks, both her own as well as works by other contemporary artists. In her second chapter, Truckenbrod’s work Spirit Site provides a prescient example of the way in which the physically stable structure of the house is shot through with psychic, immaterial import, changing an architectural configuration into a psychologically charged site. This transformation is effected through a video image of salmon projected onto the walls of a model home situated in the exhibition space. Such a work contrasts with iconic examples including Rachel Whiteread’s 1993 House and Gordon Matta-Clark’s 1974 Splitting. Whereas these particular works operated by intervening into the architectural integrity of their respective structures, Truckenbrod’s piece uses the projection of light to alter one’s perception of the model house, representing it as a location seemingly charged with memory and experience.

In Splitting, residual traces of the New Jersey home’s former residents were removed from the site prior to Matta-Clark’s “opening” of the structure to forces of light and gravity. In this piece, the notion of home as a private, enclosed space is disrupted as Matta-Clark quite literally splits the home in two, allowing a searing beam of light to pierce the space, revealing latent instabilities in the pseudo-sacred concept of home. But there are no specific residents whose identities are exposed or memorialized. Instead, Splitting generalizes the notion of the home, allowing individual viewers to experience their own associations with domesticity and the American Dream instantiated by suburban architecture. Likewise, Whiteread’s House generalizes the associative possibilities evoked by architectural typologies by leaving the tangible form of a London row house created through the process of casting. The interior of the house is cast in cement, rendering its surfaces impenetrable and its interior uninhabitable. The trace of the house here is solid rather than spectral – whereas projection enacts a ghostly play on a surface, casting solidifies negative space, thereby evoking a sense of muteness and foreclosure, as the now-solid negative space of the home can no longer allow either inhabitation or the generation of precise memories and narratives.

Truckenbrod’s piece, in contrast to these works, demonstrates how the resonances of domestic space are produced through immaterial and ephemeral phenomena, such as memory and narrative. Architecture here is metaphorical rather than actual – the configuration of the home is suggested by the walls and roofline of the structure, yet it is suspended above the gallery floor, with its interior fully visible due to the lack of one exterior wall. The piece acquires its aesthetic and conceptual impact through the projection of images into the space, and the presence of photographs that speak to specific identities of the figures captured in them. In her summation of the piece, Truckenbrod writes that the installation “questions structures and forms created for people who are shedding their physical spaces but maintain their rich accumulation of ephemeral memories and material objects….The home is a vessel for precious possessions and potent memories.” [2] Home is not, here, defined architecturally, but in a journey or a narrative quilted from memory.

Truckenbrod, however, does not simply privilege immaterial forces – instead, she seeks to show how immateriality and ephemerality work more powerfully in conjunction with the material object-world, insofar as “objects are poetic receptacles.” [3] The physical object, both impressed upon and hybridized by the projection of video imagery, through digital or analog means, becomes an effective vehicle for narrative. Material begins to speak differently when its surface is transmuted by light. Projection temporalizes the physical substrate, providing opportunities to understand how duration becomes woven into storylines and sequences. 

If Truckenbrod conceives of the material object as a “vessel,” the vessel unveils its secrets, in the form of narrative, when projections are applied to their surfaces. The expressiveness of the object, or its “vibrancy,” to use the terminology of Jane Bennett, is enhanced by the agency of the projection. [4] Not only does the artifact acquire increased narrative and expressive potential, but it also becomes a performer in its own right. Objects “have agency in their own behavior.” [5] In other words, they should not be conceived as passively inhabiting the world, but as actively shaping social behaviors. Objects thus influence human activity, exerting power over the cultural fabric into which they are woven. The performativity of objects mobilizes social practice, both in the everyday lifeworld and in art, but this capacity for performativity is catalyzed through the object’s interaction with other things. It is in this collaboration between agents that significance and performativity become most apparent. 

Alongside the notion of the performativity of objects, which resurfaces in various guises throughout the text, a key term that emerges in Truckenbrod’s book is “assemblage,” and specifically the notion, introduced by Deleuze and Guattari, of the machinic assemblage. [6] Truckenbrod emphasizes that “video film sculpture” gathers together disparate elements, heterogeneities that are woven together into a particular spatio-temporal fabric, governed by the concept and aesthetic motivations of the artwork. The assemblage acquires an agency by virtue of the energies contained within each of the diverse elements in the piece. Together, these elements constitute a machine, with its own particular force and momentum. There is, according to Truckenbrod, a paradoxical effect in the concatenation of static artifacts and time-based, filmic projection. Each element shapes the other, so that mutual pressure is exerted on the object by the film and vice versa. Introduced midway through the text, the notion of assemblage extends the idea of the vitality and performativity of objects. Objects in and of themselves contain vital energy and cultural influence, but it is in the assemblage that their latent, or perhaps forgotten, force is brought to light.

The object does not merely act as a screen for the video feed, but, as in the case of Susan Collins’s Light Up, video calls attention to certain aspects of the life of the object that might go otherwise unremarked upon. In this project, Collins illuminates street drains from beneath, “hinting at a hidden vibrant underworld.” [7] As a spectrum of colors shifts from one to the next, a common, base object, more often a site of revulsion than fascination, is transformed. It becomes a gateway into an intriguing and mysterious territory. The sub-structural space beneath the streets is brought to the awareness of the walker of these London thoroughfares. What was familiar and utilitarian then becomes an imaginative vehicle. The assemblage of light and drain creates a dreaming machine as well as an aesthetic punctuation that disrupts the too often blind hustle and bustle of urban foot traffic.

Truckenbrod’s work, alongside exemplary cases by other artists, provokes contemplation of the status of light and screen based technology in contemporary culture. In the digital age, immaterial transmissions and transactions have become the norm, and the ephemerality of the digital object is accepted or even taken for granted. In her third chapter, Truckenbrod underscores her interest in the psychological impact of media as it becomes integrated with the physical object-world. Using the illustrative example of Tony Oursler’s Influence Machine, specifically Oursler’s engagement with the 18th century tradition of phantasmagoria and the notion of communication with the dead, Truckenbrod shows how the superimposition of projections on everyday objects can produce profound psychological effects. Technology potentially can be read as a conduit for spiritual communications. In particular, technologies of ephemerality become means for connecting with a spirit world, whether actual or metaphorical. The assemblage of projection and artifacts, then, allows a closer connection between spirit- (or spiritual) world and object-world. The realm of the spirit is that of emotion, of psychological states, and of personal meanings: as objects become imbued with spirit their vitality begins to shine through (or upon) their surface.

In the final chapter of the text, Truckenbrod supplies a summation of her argument that “video film sculpture” is a vital, performative genre, specifically by suggesting that the immateriality of light “articulates form.” [8] The interaction of light and solid form creates a sense of liveness that would otherwise lie dormant in the physical object. Of particular interest is Truckenbrod’s treatment of works that have transformed the architecture of urban space. Citing projects by the Graffiti Research Lab, Tim Head, Krzysztof and Wodiczko, as well as a collaborative work by students at the University of Berlin, Truckenbrod shows how such interventionist projections upon architectural facades radically alter these constructions, transforming them into dynamic rather than static forms. Whether the projection involves the play of abstract colored light on a building, as in the case of Head’s work, or the superimposition of a giant, talking head onto the domed surface of the Centro Cultural Theater in Tijuana, Mexico, light and motion seem to seep into the walls themselves, dissolving them into fields of kinetic energy. These examples provide direct links to the earlier sections of the book, which address issues that emerge in relation to the notion of home and domestic architecture, and offer insightful illustrations of the interpenetration of video imagery and sculptural form. As Truckenbrod argues, projections like these cause the video’s frame to melt into the shape of the object, disrupting flatness and rectilinearity. The two entities, material and immaterial, are thus mutually transformed and transformative.

The Paradoxical Object balances its theoretical claims with carefully chosen case studies. Beautifully illustrated, the text is engaging and lyrical. It will be useful for a wide audience interested in multi-media contemporary art, including art historians, artists, and curators, as well as non-professional enthusiasts. The accessibility of the text, along with Truckenbrod’s helpful descriptions, makes for a vivid and understandable reading experience. Truckenbrod provides a rich background for her own work, but contextualizes her practice by citing other contemporary art projects that further elucidate her concepts. Works by Susan Collins, Tony Oursler, and Shigeiko Kubota, among many others, are deployed to more clearly decipher the ways in which intersections of video and sculpture operate in a dialectical relationship to one another, producing a third term or a new experiential mode that does not exist inherently in either of the originary parts.

By mobilizing these illustrations, Truckenbrod situates her own practice within a larger discursive movement in contemporary art towards “video film sculpture.” She reveals her work not as a singular, idiosyncratic process, but as an act of entering into conversation with other artists who are innovators in the use of light and projection, creating novel interactions between solidity and intangibility. In this way, she deftly steers clear of solipsism, and emphasizes the emergence of a particular branch of multi-media practice, one whose cultural and aesthetic relevance must be accounted for. In an age rife with ephemeral digital artifacts, the intersection of object and projection creates a powerful provocation, one that encourages the viewer to remember and reconsider the performative and transformative roles of objecthood in the context of everyday life.

References:

1. Joan Truckenbrod, The Paradoxical Object: Video Film Sculpture (London: Black Dog Publishing, 2013), 8.

2. Truckenbrod, Paradoxical Object, 34.

3. Truckenbrod, Paradoxical Object, 37.

4. Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010).

5. Truckenbrod, Paradoxical Object, 41.

6. Truckenbrod, Paradoxical Object, 60.

7. Truckenbrod, Paradoxical Object, 51.

8. Truckenbrod, Paradoxical Object, 140.

Bio:

Meredith Hoy is Assistant Professor of Contemporary Art in the Art Department at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. She received her Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley in 2010. Her current book project, entitled From Point to Pixel: A Genealogy of Digital Aesthetics, traces links between contemporary digital art and modern painting. Drawing on theories of visuality, space and spatial practice, cybernetics and systems theory, phenomenology, and post-structuralism and semiotics, her research focuses on the impact of technology on art and visual culture.  She has written on modern and contemporary art and architecture, generative art, information visualization, and the phenomenology of networked space. She teaches courses on modern and contemporary art, visual culture, and media studies.

meredith.hoy@umb.edu