to gaze without sight / blind in the museum

Last Thursday marked Liz Glynn’s 2nd performance for Engagement Partyat MOCA Los Angeles, “Like a Patient Etherized on the Table.” The performance was part of a residency by Glynn titled “Loving you is like Fucking the Dead,” a tribute to the goth metal band Type O Negative, and follows “On the Destruction of the Crystal Palace,” the first performance in the series of three. Both pieces so far have used the museum as muse as well as setting, deconstructing the very nature of seeing, preserving, and idealizing the museum and analyze the museum as cultural construct.

"on the destruction of the crystal palace"

Glynn takes her title from a T.S. Eliot poem, “The Love Songs of J. Alfred Prufrock” from 1919, keeping us squarely in the time period she summoned for “Crystal Palace,” the turn of the 20th century. This period has obvious implications in terms of her use of museum history and art theory given the nascence of the museum as preserver of the world’s art and cultural artifacts and the emergence of new technologies that inspired oft-cited essays such as Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” But, I get ahead of myself, let’s first delve into the actual event of the evening, Glynn’s orchestrated blind-stroll through priceless works of art.

Blindfolded visitors

Upon entering the museum, visitors were given a note that explained the process for the evening, that they would follow the sound of jangling keys and stop when the sound stopped. Upon agreeing to the terms, the “viewers” were blindfolded and their stroll began in earnest. Guards and museum staff led the way, jangling their keys, conjuring the idea of authority figure and groundskeeper, the constructors of our communal experience in the institution. At each stop along the way the blindfolded were treated to time-period appropriate lines of poetry selected by Glynn as far as I can tell to emphasize the experience of darkness more than to elucidate the works on the walls or the specter of the surrounding museum. Visitors were given no clues as to where in the museum they were, or what images happened to be on the walls, in fact many were surprised to find out that in fact the lights had been on the whole time. They were then led either to an elevator or to stairs (depending on the timing of their tour–the elevator gave out about half way through the evening) and into the lower level auditorium of the museum. Once in the auditorium visitors were directed to sit and were instructed to take off their blind-fold whenever they wished and to stay as long as they liked. Upon opening their eyes, they were greeted by an illuminated blank white screen, no sound, no image, no instruction.

Duchamp's coal bags

Hearing about this performance, my mind went directly to something I was told long ago, that Duchamp at one of his art openings, instructed for the lights in the gallery to be turned off and, handing out flashlights to visitors, asserted that no one looks at art on the walls during the opening anyway. Thinking about this piece, I did a little research and learned I had heard this inaccurately, in fact, this was a reference to Duchamp’s curation of the 1938 International Surrealist Exhibition at the Galerie des Beaux-Arts in Paris where he hung the ceiling with over one thousand coal bags, obscuring the normally well-lit room and forcing visitors to use flashlights to see the works on display. For another exhibition, First Papers of Surrealism, Duchamp entangled would-be viewers in one mile of twine, limiting greatly their ability to approach any art. About his flashlight experiment, Elena Filipovic points out in “A Museum That is Not” for e-flux, “the viewers got close to the art, leaning forward to focus their hand-held electric lights–an act in distinct contrast to the notion of ‘proper distance,’ disembodied viewing, and the ‘enlightening’ clarity of the traditional museum or gallery… One notes a concern with perception and a continuation of that assault on visual autonomy that so interested Duchamp… the interrogation of the

Duchamp's twine

autonomy of vision went hand-in-hand with a rethinking of that site so invested in maintaining it–the Cartesian exhibition space.” Clearly we see here a connection to the assault Glynn performs on visitor’s visual sense in her piece, “Like a Patient Etherized on the Table.” Glynn, to the same end, is analyzing and realizing the limitations of the museum and the structures of museum viewership as well as considering the essence of the museum itself as preserver of our cultural heritage and artistic legacy.

Walter Benjamin, in his essay The Work of Art In the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, also discussed the space between object and spectator and its implications. Just as Glynn looks at the destruction of the institution that was meant to preserve in her first piece and subverts the visual in a space tending toward extreme ocularcentrism in the relationship of viewer to artwork in her second piece, Benjamin also assesses what it means to preserve and the cultural need for historic validation as well as the function of physical closeness to, and originality in, works of art. Much is made of the idea here of the aura of the work of art, and Benjamin’s feeling that the aura is predicated on direct contact and originality. I see in Glynn’s piece, however, also a “talking back” to Benjamin, and an answer as to how to preserve the experience of the creative aura of works of art, by eliminating the very overused sense on which we normally rely, the ocular experience.

For Benjamin, “the contemporary decay of the aura… rests on two circumstances, both of which are related to the increasing significance of hte masses in contemporary life. Namely, the desire of contemporary masses to bring things ‘closer’ spatially and humanly, which is just as ardent as their bent toward overcoming the uniqueness of every reality by accepting its reproduction. Every day the urge grows stronger to get hold of an object at very close range by way of its likeness, its reproduction.” Uniqueness is linked to permanence completely in this essay, and Glynn also seems to be playing with both of these ideas, a loss of permanence in the destruction of the museum as institution and the assertion of uniqueness as the temporality of experience rather than the “domain of tradition” inherent in the objecthood of the original work of art. In the first of his perceived two planes of art work reception, Benjamin points out that “artistic production begins with ceremonial objects… one may assume that what mattered was their existence, not their being on view.” My question for visitors leaving MOCA upon experiencing Glynn’s piece was, “Did it matter that you were among works of art?” In other words, I wonder, was the knowledge of the “being there” of the work important to the experience for the visitor. Despite the common response of having been affected by the knowledge that they were in a museum, I do feel that their experience would have been different had they been told that the priceless works had been removed for this event than it was knowing that the works were just inches from their bodies. The knowing physical closeness had to have had an impression just as much as the institutional influence of the museum as place. Glynn, by orchestrating this experience of closeness and cult value of the work of art through blindness to the actual works, subverts Benjamin’s erosion of the aura caused by increased experience and exposure to reproduced work.

It is no surprise that Benjamin asserted the Dadaists, with their passion for reproduction even as a part of the act of original creation, and their ceaseless closing in and unending examination of the work and experience of art, were chiefly responsible for the destruction of the aura. Duchamp’s darkness led to greater closeness and focus, while Glynn’s darkness leads to a stepping back to the experience of the work’s cult properties, the building back up of the aura through the idea of the art’s physical legacy rather than the specific work’s manifestation as image. Susan Buck-Morss in “Mythic Nature: Wish Image,” points out that “Benjamin was reluctant to rest revolutionary hope directly on imagination’s capacity to anticipate the not-yet-existing. Even as wish image, utopian imagination needed to be interpreted through the material objects in which it found expression, for it was upon the transforming mediation of matter that the hope of utopia ultimately depended: technology’s capacity to create the not-yet-known.” Perhaps it is really through the aura an not the vision of art works that the next imagination is realized. Possibly, this is the blank screen for Glynn, the canvas for the imagination of the participant upon interaction with the aura of the work, the landing point and launching point from which to continue the utopian thought experiment itself.

In the end, I wonder whether the gaze of the viewer upon the work and the perceived being gazed upon of the viewer by the work of art can be achieved without sight itself. Is the gaze enough caught up in the aura of the object, the feeling of closeness and the perception of historical object-ness, that blinding the viewer can actually aid experience and connection to the work? In other words, perhaps the contemplation allowed through engagement in this way, rather than the distraction of seeing the actual works themselves, provides a more authentic experience and a greater aura to be present. The sense that the gaze is returned may be amplified without an actual ability to “look” upon the work. Glynn is clearly interested in other aspects of the museum experience as well, utilizing security officers to read poetry and guide experience is bold in itself, but I find fascinating the choice to place blindfolded viewers beside great works of art. I almost wish she had left the piece at that.




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