by Sean Michael Nelson
The 1976 film The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane features a prime example of how to induce terror. The titular girl, played by Jodie Foster, lives in a house, seemingly by herself, and is one day intruded upon by the building’s landlord. Having already been refused access to it the day earlier, the landlord insists on retrieving her jelly glasses from the cellar, and proceeds to enter against the girl’s protests, screaming at what she sees down there and meeting her end in an accident trying to exit. The film never reveals just what it was that was seen in the cellar: by allowing the audience to imagine what was in there, they become complicit in and authors of the scene’s horror.
Though he dislikes the imposing nature of video and film, Luis Camnitzer’s works function in a similar way to this scene. Take Camnitzer’s polystyrene sign which reads “THIS IS A MIRROR / YOU ARE A WRITTEN SENTENCE.” For the piece to produce any affect, the viewer will have to work with the piece.
As Camnitzer puts it in the catalogue that accompanies his current exhibition at the Belkin Art Gallery, he “provides processes, which [will] turn the viewer into a producer instead of a consumer.” Camnitzer’s mirror avoids the analogous pitfall of showing the viewer what is in the cellar, thereby reducing her to a consumer; instead, this mirror provokes us to understand, among other things, how we might be reflected in or constructed through language. As Camnitzer puts it, “words can take the place of the objects they designate” much in the way a dark cellar can function as a mental placeholder for the viewer’s imagination. It’s fitting then that in Camnitzer’s Living Room (1969/2010), the artist creates an installation of a living room by substituting written descriptions for the objects they stand for. The audience’s imagination makes it possible for them to walk on top of the “rug” descriptors and around the “table” descriptors lying on the floor, as Camnitzer has observed people doing.
One learns about the self through what is projected into the space of the cellar (just what tropes lurk in the imagination); one also learns something by engaging with Camnitzer’s conceptual art. This Is a Mirror, You Are a Written Sentence and Living Room suggest, as French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan claims, that humans are subjects of language: that one of the defining characteristics of humanity is being immersed in a social-symbolic linguistic order.
As the billboard outside the Belkin reads: “THE MUSEUM IS A SCHOOL / THE ARTIST COMMUNICATES / THE PUBLIC MAKES CONNECTIONS.” In the catalogue, Camnitzer expresses his hope that if the public continues to make these connections art will no longer be necessary, as it will be produced everywhere. Perhaps this will be the case with a good education.
Find out for yourself if you’d walk around the “table” (or into the metaphorical cellar) by visiting the comprehensive Luis Camnitzer exhibit running until December 4 at the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery.