A World Without Dimension (1)
By Kathy Battista
The advent of new technologies has seen disparities in scale become a commonplace feature in advertising and popular culture. The development of software programs such as Photoshop means that women can now hold airplanes in their hands and giant vodka bottles can become part of the architecture of a city. (2)
Imagery of this type has become so ubiquitous that the viewer doesn't question its veracity; one simply knows that the images were created by a machine. Where once was a time when artists and filmmakers had to deftly negotiate negatives and celluloid, today the computer can seamlessly make anything appear possible. This effect renders itself most evidently in the question of scale, which has always been a fascination of artists and writers. Just think of Alice's journey into Wonderland, Gulliver's adventures in Lilliput, almost any Surrealist painting, or the countless miniature souvenirs found in any tourist destination in the world. The role of scale, be it miniature or gigantic, is to give the viewer the omniscience of a god. The power to hold a building in one's hands allows one to see beyond the straightforward narrative, to imagine the impossible, and to conjure up magical worlds. (3)
Peter Garfield's work has an abiding engagement with notions of scale and the uncanny. His practice involves a range of skills, from creating sets and small models to photography and digital rendering. In a series called Mobile Homes from the mid-1990s Garfield created photographs of houses flying through the air. These were eviscerated or exploded, suggesting some kind of natural disaster - cyclone, tornado - that one associates with midwestern North America. The series began with models of typical suburban homes that Garfield painstakingly constructed. Smaller than a shoebox, these could be held in one's hand. (The scale is actually 1:100) The model homes were hung in the air from fishing line while the photograph was taken. The settings varied from bright sunlight to cloudy or nighttime conditions, and at times are blurry or grainy, lending a sense of veracity to the series. The elaborate fiction of Mobile Homes is further developed in an accompanying catalogue. This includes photographs of construction workers in hardhats examining massive pieces of aluminum siding resembling debris from a plane crash, suggesting that the houses were violently shattered by some natural disaster. A helicopter with a harness holds a portion of a ranch style home, providing more 'documentary' evidence for Garfield's photographs.
The artist developed his fascination with scale and the uncanny in Objects with Potential, a series of digitally manipulated photographs from 2002. The artist stated that this "series of photographs, was shot at a location in the western plains states where military and private enterprise collaborate on various projects for business and national defense. It is a place that has distilled the American Dream mythology of optimism, efficiency, productivity, and racial harmony in a minimal and hygienic environment." (4) This body of work, which again takes the form of large-scale photographs, features an indecipherable landscape, which is in some instances populated by people in labcoats. Positioned in vast expanses of space punctuated by anonymous industrial buildings, these people could be nefarious or benevolent. They hold hands, communicate with each other, and signal to their colleagues in the distance. What is it that they are doing? What are their motives? The most unsettling aspect of viewing the photographs is their uncertainty. Not knowing what this mise en scene means. Not knowing where these people are. Not knowing what they are doing.
Freud's notion of the uncanny (or unheimlich), which is most often associated with dead bodies, can be employed in relation to Garfield's work. Freud writes:
÷if psychoanalytic theory is correct in maintaining that every affect belonging to an emotional impulse, whatever its kind, is transformed, if it is repressed, into anxiety, then among instances of frightening things there must be one class in which the frightening element can be shown to be something repressed which recurs. This class of frightening things would then constitute the uncanny; and it must be a matter of indifference whether what is uncanny was itself originally frightening or whether it carried some other affect. In the second place, if this is indeed the secret nature of the uncanny, we can understand why linguistic usage has extended das Heimliche ['homely'] into its opposite, das Unheimliche; for this uncanny is in reality nothing new or alien, but something which is familiar and old-established in the mind and which has become alienated from it only through the process of repression. (5)
Garfield's scenarios are indeed uncanny, alien-like, for they don't seem real, but they do feel familiar. Objects with Potential invokes the sense of the after-image of a bad dream, when one wakes with a start unable to piece together the fragmented narratives in their head. Like Freud's notion of the uncanny, the series is frightening, but we cannot determine why.
The incredibly flat landscape adds the element of infinite perspective to these photographs, lending them a resemblance to High Renaissance paintings. Garfield photographed the series, then in some cases, digitally enhanced colours and removed extraneous elements such as signage on buildings, random vehicles and people. The result is an environment that reminds one of a dream where people take on enigmatic roles and their relationships are uncertain. The context offers no clues. The shed-like architecture could be anywhere. Time is suspended as shadows are played with or removed from the landscape. Indeed, it is as if it is a dead landscape, a cemetery with no graves. Garfield was thinking of De Chirico as he made these works, and the photographs evoke the Surrealist's sense of suspended time and unreal space.
Garfield reproduced Objects with Potential in the Danish publication Hvedekorn 4/2001. The photographs are not introduced to the reader, and one is left to imagine the scenarios. In addition, trace paper pages are placed in between the photographs. These trace sheets contain drawings by the artist, calculations, charts, and illustrations sourced in instruction manuals. For example, an instructional diagram that illustrates how to use a tampon is juxtaposed with an engineering drawing of how to put a machine part together, and a graph from a flow chart begins to resemble a mountain landscape. Garfield later translated such drawings into large-scale sculpture. Both the two- and three-dimensional works are metaphors for quantification and relate to the artist's general interest in dehumanization and alienation in contemporary life.
One of the interesting aspects of Garfield's work is its self-referential nature. His larger artistic project is one where past themes, images or figures reappear in new environments. An ongoing video project called Deep Space I is a gesamkunstwerk that combines Garfield's interests in model-making, set design, sculpture, photography, digital rendering and direction. The video begins in an ambiguous space, which is actually the artist's studio. Figures in labcoats (reminiscent of Objects with Potential) stand and sit at a long table. Presumably they are at work on some nameless (perhaps secret?) project. They measure things, use computers, sit beside architectural models and drawings. The feeling is one of hygienic efficiency. The setting is deceptive, though, as the deep perspectival space is the result of an illusionistic painting on the far wall of the studio. The camera zooms in and suddenly it is unclear as to whether we are in a model or a real room. At one point the camera pans into the model and this splices into a shot of the real space. Worlds melt into other worlds, and the movement oscillates from the miniature space of the architectural model to the space of real life. This has the effect of drawing the viewer into a space that is never certain, never fixed.
The narrative moves between human scale, miniature worlds and the expansive. For example, one scene in the video features a female worker who steps through the false painting on the studio wall. Suddenly she is in a snowy, nighttime setting. As she runs through the snow the scale changes to an aerial view of a mountain range. Are these model-sized, or in fact real? Here the boundaries between fiction and reality are blurred. Like a hallucinatory dream, day can turn to night, characters can disappear and reappear, and one's sense of reality shifts and fades.
Garfield's video combines much of the earlier elements of his work into one piece. His practice intrigues because of its play with reality and its ability to draw the viewer into the worlds he creates; one is simultaneously implicated and entertained. From large-scale sculpture to photography and video there is the abiding engagement with scale, worlds within worlds and dream-like narratives.
Always in the work is this uncanny feeling of ambivalence. The sense of play can easily turn into a darker notion of mystery and uncertain motives. Garfield's work has that rare quality of openness. He invites the viewer into his constructed worlds, then leaves one to figure out what it is all about. Like waking from a dream, there are fragments, montages and unsolved metaphors. It is left to the viewer to decipher their multiple meanings and interpretations.
(1) The title is taken from Brian O'Doherty's discussion of Yves Klein's Leap into the Void from 1958. Klein's action, documented by photographs, has been the subject of debate around its authenticity. Was it the act of an expert practitioner of Judo, as Klein was, or the deft slight-of-hand of a master trickster? Certainly Klein was attempting to move beyond the limits of the art object and gallery space. See Brian O'Dohery, Inside the White Cube (expanded edition), Santa Monica: The Lapis Press, 1999, p **.
(2) I refer here to advertisements for Air France and Absolut Vodka respectively.
(3) For interesting discussions on this topic see Susan Stewart, On Longing: Narratives on the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection, Duke University Press, 1993 and Mark Morris, 'Little London' in Eyeing London, London: Lawrence & Wishart, 2002, p. 88.
(4) Correspondence from the artist, July 2002.
(5) Sigmund Freud, 'The Uncanny' (1919), in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. & trs. James Strachey, vol. XVII, London: Hogarth, 1953, pp. 240-243.