Mirror Room: The Inside Is the Outside/Zones of Affect
Material Aggregate/ Abstract Idea
Mirror Room could be called a work in two parts, a disjunctive synthesis of theory and practice. The first part, which addresses what I would call the theoretical imaginary, is in many respects a preamble to the built work and consists of an architectural plan and photograph of the empty gallery space (both of which are printed on the flyer and the exhibition catalogue). In other words, alongside the work, the plan and the photograph of the space set up the territory of the abstract idea, a version of the work as constructed in the mind. Theory and practice mirror each other, disjunctively, for each will supply what the other cannot.
This lacuna, or gap opened up between the work-in-itself and work-as-idea, addresses the gallery-goer with an imperative to build. Imagine this. Fill the void in an equation in which both sides reveal what is incomplete in the other. For it is only when the viewer phenomenologically enters the enigma of the work and is engulfed by its scale, that the architectural plan or diagram becomes the most logical vantage point from which to attempt to construct the whole. The built work disappears into its own immensity, out of sight to a viewer who experiences a series of partial views. The work therefore addresses itself, in part, to the mental plane of the understanding, asking to be completed as an imaginary work.
As such the structure straddles the Kantian planes of the sensible and the abstract, in simultaneous domains which never meet, and yet depend upon the other if any intelligible experience is to be had. The sheer scale of the structure is of the order of material aggregate, the blank stuff of matter; on the abstract side, the architectural plan is empty, of the realm of an idea without a content. Deleuze's solution to this Kantian dilemma, so thoroughly abstract, and so thoroughly phenomenological, was to think through the folding of planes or strata: "matter for the plane of consistency" and "content for formed matters"- "which would have to be considered from two points of view." (Deleuze and Guattari, 43) More simply, the physical structure stands in the relation of uniform and tremendous blank of matter awaiting the content of form, which can only be supplied in the lived experience of the work as thought through abstraction.
Presence Without Origin
That much, at least, is first stage of the game. For the work, as enigma, sets itself up as the puzzle, something to be solved. It's not a work which divulges itself, but which, through sheer size, is always retreating from view. You have to think through this work with very few clues: Mirror Room: Painted Plasterboard Wall and Gallery Space. Part of the task, therefore, is even to locate the work, given that the blank of its matter is one uninterrupted flow incorporating walls and gallery space. Where does the work begin and the gallery end? There's a deliberate absence of a principle of differentiation; the sole marker of skirting boards on otherwise pristine walls seamlessly integrates with the skirting of the gallery's interior walls, marking the entire territory with the same kind of skin.
As such the work is, at first glance, seemingly coextensive with the gallery space; the curved wall of architectural artifice adds a convincing Gehry-like twist to the interior, giving the impression of corridors to other rooms. Roberts' structure is so authentic that one is taken into the illusion of entering architectural space. Windows let in natural light, giving out on to the harbour, past the Cafe de Wheels. In many respects, it yields the naturalistic experience of normal habitation of built space. That's part of the trick, the convincing normality. It's a familiar structure deeply (and unconsciously) in the understanding of everyday experience. What makes it so uncanny is the heimlich quality of feeling so very much at home. Even though it looks like and performs as architecture, something is amiss. The logic of the structure doesn't quite make sense as lived space.
Instead of rooms there are walls and the sense of walking around a Very Big (Unfathomable) Thing. There's no sense of arrival; you are, rather, returned and start out again. What is circumnavigated is an enormous blank, one which extends beyond what the power of your sight can encompass. Its dimensions far exceed your own, like the giant maternal ship which Hitchcock anchored at the end of the mother's street, in Marnie. Your may find your powers of cognition and sense-making faculty ship-wrecked against the sides of this vast wall which just is - an immense structure, seemingly extending beyond the ceiling and the floor. In size it disappears beyond the limits of the vertical visible (ceiling and floor) and also into a horizontal spread which is far wider than the span of the body. No longer the functional or managed space tamed for habitation, it becomes other, absurd, uncanny, of a proportionality which resists rational ratio. Further, lacking obvious signifiers to gesture towards the symbolic or representational, and reading as blanks, the walls of the structure seem to close into the experience of the pre-symbolic which psychoanalysis has called the maternal.
These immense walls thus offer some comfort, like the giant maternal body, seeming to belong to the body of some half-remembered mother (or parent), a side to press. They recall a time when the mother (or parent) seemed so very big in the scheme of the world; a kind of vastness of the sublime viewed from Kant's point of safety [there's not so much as a hint of menace in these walls (1)]. [I note that in an earlier discussion of Roberts' work, Mia Campioni had uncovered a giant Woman lurking behind the oversized articles de toilette on Medusa's Dressing Table. (2)]
But, then again, one need not experience anything of the sort. The blank is not prescriptive and easily folds into the Kantian game of architectural abstractions, engaging speculative reason (Kant, 1951), that faculty of mind which loves to build and extend its constructions as far as the mind can go: speculative reason opens to a domain of the mind without limit. Given then that RobertsŐ structure has no obvious functionality, no egress for doors or entrances, the walls soar vertically in the imagination in accordance with the desire of speculative reason. The ceiling becomes mere material barrier to a vision which the mind's eye continues, and likewise the floor. This sublime has no need of mountains and scenery, but is a relationship of ratio and extension, born out of the confluence of the near and the far (Kant, 1961). Being small in relation to the very large and very near is enough to give rise to emotions of subliminity - Kant's "incommensurability" (3). Vastness is experienced in the security of being indoors.
In any case, it's a powerful mother of a work, fulfilling conditions of the maternal sublime4. And, to continue the female analogy, one which stays on the 'inside', like a womb. The gallery's own 'outside' is 'deconstructed from within' by acts of incorporation (Campioni's monstrous female again), effectively swallowed by the architectural structure emanating from its own inside. Deconstruction, Derrida states, inhabits from within:
The movements of deconstruction do not destroy structures from the outside. They are not possible and they are not effective, nor can they take accurate aim, except by inhabiting those structures. Inhabiting them in a certain way, because one always inhabits, and all the more when one does not suspect it. Operating necessarily from the inside, borrowing all the strategic and economic resources of subversion from the old structure, that is to say without isolating their elements and atoms.(24)
Roberts has thoroughly inhabited and deconstructed Artspace from its own inside, literally through the incorporation of the interior lining of the gallery's stud walls. But, I note, in Derrida's "a certain way". Hers is not an obvious feminization of abstract space. Roberts works with the cool assurance of masterful abstraction, in a style which surreptitiously undoes the masculine mastertropes of self-contained minimalism. For, the mother that is conjured remains liminal and vast, a diffused kind of presence which seeps through the displacements of deconstruction. There are flows and resistances; not the clear demarcations which have characterized the discreet objects of high minimalism. What is unmastered, unhinged, is the colder process of intellectualization, and the reduction of matter to the containment of form.
Lines of affect can therefore be said to circulate through this work in the enigma of a presence without origin. It's difficult to say exactly where one would locate this work, in the same way that psychoanalysis could never exactly locate the where of the unconscious, except to say that in it desire circulates and flows. The more one looks at RobertsŐ intervention - its disturbance of the architectural logic of the gallery space - the more it refuses to fix and, instead, begins to incorporate other zones and territorialities. This makes it impossible even to speak of a "centre" for the sculptural form, which, while seemingly centred, is nothing but part of a series of walls engaged in a process of carrying off, or decentring into partial flows.
Indeed, that vast deterritorializing maternal form, in a sense, also deconstructs itself when interpreted through the "in-between" of passage between the walls. For, in "inhabiting (Artspace) from within", in that subversive act which incorporates the gallery's own walls, what comes to count is the viewer's own experience of passing through the work. In effect, one is both inside and outside the work at the same time: on the inside in the "in-between" of passage between walls; or, alternatively on the outside contemplating Roberts' construction. But as soon as one switches from the contemplation of form to that of inhabiting the breaks and flows of architectural passage (viewers are always shifting back and forth in these two "undecidable" positions), one is in deconstruction's "in-between", and, further, in its "undecidablity" as it undoes the notion of unity of being and place inherent in the classical idea of art as "formed matter"(as Heidegger interpreted the form-matter debate in "The Origin of the Work of Art"). The boundary lines which should determine the limits of the work, according to the classical notion of inside/outside, perform a double duty: the wall of Roberts' structure, its Ôoutside', is also the 'inner' wall of the passage formed with the gallery walls. To borrow one of deconstruction's tropes, the "outside is the inside".
Further, the walls of RobertsŐ structure can be seen to reflect the gallery walls through 'mimicry' and undo them into a territory of difference: "representation mingles with what it represents, to the point where... one thinks as if the represented were nothing more than the shadow of the representer" (1976, 36). Even though, from one point of view, Roberts' walls strictly represent nothing - they are blanks - they do, in fact, mimic and hence 'represent' the gallery's own stud walls. Derrida:
In this play of representation the point of origin becomes ungraspable. There are things like reflecting pools, and images, an infinite reference from one to the other, but no longer a source, a spring. There is no longer a simple origin (one could add of either the gallery or of Roberts' work). For what is reflected is split in itself and not only as an addition to itself of its image. The reflection, the image, the double, splits what it doubles. The origin of the speculation becomes difference. What can look at itself is not one; and the law of addition of the origin to its representation, of thing to its image, is that one plus one makes at least three. (1976, 36)
The doubling which adds up to the plus of the "in-between" of the space between the walls, is an effect of the face-off of Roberts' architectural mimicry. Her mirroring resists origin (Derrida, 1976, 36): in terms of the work, which came first, her walls or those of the gallery? Where does the work begin? The question of priority is lost in a game of reflection and (potentially) "infinite reference," from one wall to another, alternately creating chasms of passage and pooling into the broader calms of opened-out floorspace. Add the one plus one of the walls (the stud-wall and RobertsŐ mirror image) and "what can look at itself is not one" but adds up to the "in-between" of the what is produced out of their difference. One plus one makes three. Also include the fact that Roberts mimics through a strict regime of ratio and rotation (suggesting the roon is turned through ninety degrees), rather than matching the literal size of the gallery (which would be impossible given that the walls of the gallery couldn't enclose an identical set of walls), and the architecture yields to a variable topography of 'abstract' landscapes. Her mirroring is productive, generative of the third of "difference", and, therefore, escapes the strictures of classical reproduction's sameness.
Thus, though Roberts' work might be fixed, a structure inhabiting the structure of another, hers is no game of Chinese boxes and containment. Rather, as a work held open though difference and the play of its surfaces, Mirror Room enters into conversation with other examples of architectural deconstruction, Eisenman's Wexner Centre, Tschumi's follies Parc de la Villette , and also, less obviously, with Derrida's analysis of MallarmŐs Mimesis (1981), which entailed a reading of the "in-between" of the blocks of space between words in the 'spatial graphic' of the poem. Replace MallarmŐs words with RobertsŐ walls to engage with the spacing of the in-between.
Indeed, after the experience of negotiating Roberts' intervention, I came back to interpreting the architectural plan in a completely different light, now attuned to the passage of the in-between, and incorporating the walls of the gallery (and even its extensions into the rest of the Gunnery building) into the work. Prior to this, I had been reading the plan in order to locate and situate the singularity of the central form which I mistakenly perceived as the total work. The strategy of "inhabiting from within" had not only re-incorporated and reworked the boundaries of the existing gallery, but had opened it to the inside/outside undecidabilities of deconstruction's play. The effect was one of wry amusement, rather than a belly laugh, recalling the oblique humour of architectural follies. The tropings of Roberts' deconstructive game added up to a recognizable repertoire - inside-outside gags, its mirrorings and undoings from within, its paradoxical presencing of the non-thing of the "in-between" - without succumbing to illustration or repetition.
Thus while I am not attributing a conscious deconstructive practice to Roberts, I couldn't help but find myself employing some of the ready-made tactics of deconstruction in order to explore the complexities of her work. For, in working with structures, indeed the 'originary' architectural structure of Artspace gallery, in such a way as to undo it from within, she is, however inadvertently, practising what has come to be recognized as deconstruction. But practising it in her own unique way. Certainly Derrida was the first to embark on a deconstruction of the rhetorical forms of classical metaphysical thought, its architectonic, and to elaborate a series of tropes which were later appropriated by architects, Tschumi and Eisenman, in their analagous deconstruction of the classical ideals still inherent in modernism. However, the adventure of deconstruction belongs to a wider rethinking of classical metaphysics and extends to such writers as Deleuze and Guattari, Lacan, Kristeva, Levinas, Freud, Heidegger, etc., all of whom questioned the priority of notions like place and being, and argued, each in their own way, for a philosophy of displacement, desire and flows. Nevertheless, as Mark Wrigley has shown (5) Derrida's strategy of troping trope inherently combined both the architectural and the rhetorical - undoing place through mimesis, closure by the 'gap', representation through mirroring, etc, all of which make him the obvious thinker for anyone investigating the metaphysics of built structures.
Therefore, when Roberts throws up a structure in order to inhabit and undo another, she can be seen to be entering into the deconstructive game. In particular, when classical notions of the unity of being and place (being holding to its place) are deconstructed into the experience of walking the passage in-between. Lines of affect begin to be trace trajectories of desire - following after in expectation of arrival, seeking the "the lost object of desire" posited by the path. For metaphysical desire can be said to be experienced whenever we expect to be led somewhere, indeed with anticipations of arrival. The trope of desire manifests as displacement along an axis of contiguity, not only in the writings of Derrida, but also in those of Lacan, Kristeva, and Freud. Roberts engages this abstract metaphysical desire, thwarting any sense of arrival - for nothing in the experience of Roberts' Mirror Room ever really stops or stays still. Instead, there are partial flows, and displacements which carry us off in our desire to know. In this respect, Mirror Room can be interpreted as a metaphysical work of desire, resisting the self-containment of being and place. Mirror Room leaks - along what Deleuze and Guattari called lines of escape. (Even that tremendous mother sensed in the magnitude of the blanks 'leaks' through the ceiling and the floor.)
However, deconstruction as a strategy has been much misunderstood, even interpreted as destructive (6). Roberts' intervention demonstrates, rather, how deconstruction as a process is productive. The strategy of "inhabiting from within" releases the other readings of a new set of territorialities and zones already inherent in the old structure, but in such a way as to be never directly predictable, or prescriptive - and never to be confused with anything as literal as the archaeology of the site. Deconstruction's aims are metaphysical, to do with the release of desire and force without ever reducing to Freud, or, more precisely, his theatre of Oedipal triangulation (7). Roberts refuses interpretation: which is why her walls are deliberately blank, leaving only the contemplation of form. No cues, no hints are supplied, and even that maternal presence of sheer size belongs to the memory of a moment prior to signification, language, or sign. This cutting off of signification releases desire, affect, flow, and turns attention to the structuring of the space as experienced by a thinking body, thus addressing the sensory, abstract and emotion planes without having to pass formally through the signs of language. This unhinged at least one viewer, who found herself adrift and panicked without the moorings of the sign. Mirror Room refuses to reduce to the symbolic, returning only blanks which double and disseminate, refusing to fix - and, therefore, can't be accused of a banal polyvocality or multivalent significations. Strictly there are no signifiers to sign. Rather, a more precise experience of a-signifying emotion and abstraction is yielded through the viewer's exploration of the work.
It's interesting, therefore, to compare Roberts' work with that of Rachael Whiteread, another artist who is also working with the strategy of "inhabiting from within", with a very different result. Whiteread's famous resin and plaster casts of the "in-between" of the space between the walls or structures of things - from the interior of a house (House, 1993) to the undersides of chairs (Twenty Five Spaces, 1995) - could also be described as deconstruction in that they manifest the paradoxical "not-there-ness" of the in-between. Whiteread, too, is a deconstructor of the classical notion of art as "formed matter", but her approach is through the strategy of the three dimensional imprint of the ghost. Her works can be read as "imprints" of what's not there, manifesting Derrida's notion of the "being imprinted of the imprint" (1976, 63), his description for what he called the "archetrace" invading presence from within.
That's what Whiteread does: her casts reveal the imprint of the outer form of form; the imprint which should come from without now comes from the inside, as a kind of interior writing or spacing. Recall that in Of Grammatology Derrida deconstructed the classical relation of speech and writing, in which writing was considered secondary, mere copy or imprint of more originary speech. Derrida described how 'archewriting' invades and inhabits speech, as a kind of unconscious ghost which manifests in the spacing already inherent in speech (the spacing in between the words). Speech was always divided in itself by difference (by spacing) from within and was therefore always a kind of archewriting or archetrace. Analogously, Whiteread deconstructs formed matter to reveal the spacing of the imprint - registered in the waxy medium of resin, or plaster cast (in traditional bronze sculpture the plaster formed the form of form, of a 'ghost' of the work to come.) Once again, form is borrowed from the old structure in order to deconstruct it: the imprint which should come from without, as a secondary, exterior impression of an originary thing which guards its mysterious interior essence, now erupts from within as the archetrace: form of form, ghost of the within. Classical unity splits and fractures when the outside invades the inside - but not without the positive yield of a phantom presence 'inhabiting from within'.
As in Roberts' Mirror Room , whose copied walls can also be read as a kind of 'imprint', a copy, and therefore as a sort of ghost-structure. Deconstruction is less the work of the negative (taking apart, destroying) than the positive labour of the imprint. Indeed, the wider body of Roberts' work with existing built structures reveals her fascination with the 'imprint', even though this might not always have been Derrida's "being imprinted with the imprint" in the strict sense of copy. In a series of projects which includes "Drawing on Rooms" (8) Roberts imposes an imprint (line drawing or coloured planes) over the existent architectural lines - adding an independent trace or ghost-writing. The imprint is added on, literally imprinted or stamped on the architecture: three dimensional planes reduce to two; flat space yields the illusion of three dimensional form; corners project out rather than in. The built structure is reconfigured from within through the addition of the trace, that immaterial 'non-thing' of the imprint, which is, always, a kind of writing. When Derrida provocatively announces that:
The trace is nothing, it is not an entity, it exceeds the question of What is? and contingently makes it possible (1976, 75)
he is pointing to the power of the ghost, the ontological "nothing", to change and reconfigure the foundations of classical metaphysics as unity of form. For, to "exceed the question of What is?" of thing-being and open a work to the displacements of contingence is to raise the issue of the where or the what of the work. The trace, which paradoxically, "is nothing" (a series of lines, or a surface of colour) is the plus of difference which remakes and undoes through inhabiting old structures, in "such a way" as to deconstruct them. Roberts' line drawings are such traces. Belonging to the abstract plane of thought they are 'nothing' as physical entities, and yet their imprint cuts into the planes of material consistency, rewriting and reconfiguring them from within. In Mirror Room Roberts carries the process further with the additional step of replacing the purely abstract plane of her line and surface imprints with an actual structure which mimics and undoes from within. Her intervention has become more subtle, more seamless, more in tune with DerridaŐs notion of archetrace as an "erased determination" which passes itself off as the addition of nothing: the no-thing, or blank of one more wall integrates innocently into the gallery, and yet changes all. Mirror Room deconstructs itself, seemingly from within the "addition" of a seeming nothing in its own interior.
This is Roberts' art, or if you like, her artifice as deconstructive trickster, to have pulled off a work which is in a sense, invisible, through fully in view. On its blank surfaces it's a work of nothing, nothing to see or read by way of obvious signifiers, a sensory blank of space and light. Where one expects art, art has been voided, put under erasure, leaving the architectural structure of a tropework, which, though a game of mimicry or folds, produces art where you least expect it, in the in-between of the blanks, out of nothing. To counter Lear's fool in which "nothing comes of nothing", nothing becomes the positive of the viewer's lived experience of space and spacing. Immaterial, and abstract, certainly, without losing the contact of the sensory. Roberts offers a rare chance of living, or glimpsing, the metaphysical, and always invisible, trace.
1. One viewer experienced the very different reaction of panic in the face of Roberts' non-signifying, incomprehensible blank. Without the comfort of signification, she toured the exhibition with her back to Roberts' constructed wall, apparently in a state of terror. This confirms Kant's point that the sublime, when not experienced from a point of perceived safety, becomes one of anxiety.
2.Campioni, Mia. 1998 Plane Thinking. (Sydney: M.A.P.S.).
3. Kant, I. Critique of Judgement. "because there is in our imagination a striving towards infinite progress and in our reason a claim for absolute totality, regarded as a real idea, therefore this very inadequateness for that idea in our faculty for estimating the magnitude of things of sense excites in us the feeling of a supersensible faculty....the sublime ... surpasses every standard of sense." 88-89
4. This touches upon feminist notions of a horizontal sublime, which associates the spreading of horizontal waters with a feminine rather than a masculine vertical, and hence, phallic, sublime. RobbersŐ intervention combine both horizontal and vertical spread, but the association with the maternal scale of the pre-symbolic tempts one to lean towards a feminist sublime. See Patricia Yaeger, "Toward a Female Sublime" in Theory and Gender.
5. Wrigly, Mark. The Architecture of Reconstruction
6. Cornelia Parker's Cold Dark Matter -An Exploded View, 1991 (Installation Art, 120), literally exhibited the before and after of a structure blown up by explosives. But this work has little to do with deconstruction which is identified in the play of its tropes as a reading of structure - "the inside is the outside", the mirroring of represented and representer, etc - given that Parker contrasts what has effectively become two different structures. There's therefore not the same notion of incorporation and borrowing, deconstruction's "inhabiting from within", which undoes the reading of old structures whilst leaving them intact.
7. Deleuze and Guattari argue a case against the repressive forces of the interpretation of Freud's Oedipus theory in favour of desiring-production in Anti-Oedipus. The concept of desiring-production can, in turn, be linked back to Kant's idea of a productive imagination, and the desire of speculative reason in The Critique of Pure Reason. Common to these accounts, desire is a productive force. In the latter The Critique of Judgement, Kant accords a faculty to desire, 43.
8. Campioni pp 22-28
Campioni, Mia. 1998 Plane Thinking. Sydney: M.A.P.S.
Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Felix. 1987 A Thousand Plateaus. Trans. Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota.
de Oliveira, Nicholas, Oxley, Nicola and Petry, Michael. 1996. Installation Art. London: Thames and Hudson.
Derrida Jacques. 1976. Of Grammatology. Trans. G. Spivak Baltimore.
John Hopkins. 1981. Dissemination. Trans. Barbara Johnson. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Kant, Immanuel. 1951. Critique of Judgement. Trans. J.H. Bernard. London: Macmillan.
1966. Critique of Pure Reason. Trans. Max Muller. New York: Anchor.
Wrigley, Mark. 1993. The Architecture of Deconstruction: Derrida's Haunt. Cambridge, Mass. MIT Press.
Yaeger, Patricia. 1989 "Toward A Female Sublime." In Gender and Theory. Ed. Linda Kauffman. Oxford: Basic Blackwell.