Three ways around an installation

Paulo Sergio Duarte



The word
Hotels and Airports. They’re all the same. Except for rare specimens, no one inhabits these spaces (I’m obviously talking about human “specimens”, not viruses, bacteria or insects). A hotel is a place of being-in-transit. Hotels would appear to be everybody’s non-place, the very suspension of a space for existing – a definitive suspension for some, as they are also said to be the preferred place for certain suicides. They have inspired melancholy love songs like the one sung by Edith Piaf and later by Ornella Vanoni. One lives for a very short time in a hotel – sometimes for just a night. Nevertheless, it is said that, in fact, we inhabit another place. Language is our true dwelling place and it is too bad we need to leave it in order to work. And the word H O T E L is a minimal particle of this dwelling place; not as small as a phoneme, which is already significant. Not quite an atom, but a molecule, a morpheme. Less than this it cannot be. This globalized, urban molecule functions in five continents, producing the same meaning. It is French in origin – a rare and interesting thing nowadays. Carmela Gross has sequestered it and given it a makeover. She initially made public use of it by writing with red fluorescent lights across the top of Oscar Niemeyer’s Ibirapuera building during the 2002 São Paulo Biennial. In a way, she was dealing with the transience of that event and of art, by setting her work, the luminous word, somewhat outside all that.
The present installation takes its form from digital culture. In order to facilitate visual composition through cybernetic commands, engineers and designers started from a rectangle or square sectioned in half. The ten numerical digits and the entire alphabet may be represented by these. This graphic representation, inherited from the electronic one, has long since been a part of everyday life. We have grown used to reading letters and numbers in pieces on everything from wristwatches to supermarket price charts. Poor words, indigent numbers. Such is the state of the world – in pieces, that we may build the gestalt, which makes it legible.
Carmela has established two poles in which the word H O T E L is body and image. It should be noted, however, that she did not follow the rules of the digital universe but, instead, has gone beyond them, further fragmenting it in order to build two sculptures. The one made of light materializes, it has volume, a sort of blank painting without paint or canvas. It radiates powerfully over the room and, in a sense, seems to dominate the scene. It is masterly, whilst the other one is passive and slave-like, appearing to merely reflect the scene. Thin, flat and made of mirrors, it is very discreet. One is luminous and shows itself off, the other is a witness. L I G H T–H O T E L is a seductive body ready to be possessed by the gaze. M I R R O R–H O T E L takes in the entire scene to return us to the real moment. Without dazzling or attracting us, the mirror-word reflects before us those fragments in which we wind up in pieces, as the word or as we are. For a few instants, in this resting place, we have a tiny moment of truth. We construct precarious totalities in order to sew these pieces together. We dream of structural conflicts which might inaugurate a new field of more intelligent, more productive problems and are soon returned to the shattered world.

In the installation, Carmela introduces a vehicle as a substitute for our legs. The vehicle is as gratuitous as verse in a poem. The distance it transports us is very short, just a few meters of gallery. This is why I can imagine it as a section of a very long corridor – a subway, for instance. I have seen subway ads in metropolitan subways which were designed to work like movies – the ads printed on the tunnel walls displayed for the passengers like an image in motion. Thanks to retinal persistence, the tunnel wall became a movie screen. Carmela has subtracted space and time. They contract in such a way that, freed from our everyday experience, we are cast into the experience of art.
In any large city we are subject to at least three times and three spaces – beyond the subjective ones, of course. One is private or domestic, another public or professional and a third dictated by our need to move from one to the other. If we abstract from professional drivers of transportation vehicles and their auxiliaries (from airplane pilots to motorcycle delivery boys), the rest of urban humanity spends part of its life in the interregnum of displacement from home to work and from work back home. Space will always belong to vehicles – to the helicopter, the armored car, the shuttle, bus or packed trains. Time is useless in the nomadic life of pure geography – everyone’s life is suspended in spite of mobile phones and pilots and drivers, in business deals that have gone through, in anticipation of board meetings, in the sophisticated sound of CDs, in conversations with everyday fellow passengers, or in bodies rubbing against one another in forced intimacy – a sort of coming attractions of death. We die more while we come and go than while we sleep because while we sleep at least some of us dream. A great murderer is always present in big city traffic, one who kills us piecemeal just as words have been killed by digital segments. It is a cold sentencing to death without an electric chair which comes with a leather seat and air conditioning or hangs from subway train doors or straps. We are all, temporarily, corpses that speak, that fantasize – the living dead, poor compulsory working day nomads. And some of us have fun during these trajectories, we make friends and plan barbecues – happy zombies, but zombies nonetheless.
Carmela has subtracted space and time. She has left us all alone, without the experience of traffic or the journeys we got hooked on, so anesthetized and prepared are we to die little by little, while suggesting to us this other, brief transit in another time. Withdrawn from the nomadic hell of contemporary life, Carmela’s installation offers us a limbo in which to become aware of the pieces into which our existence has been shattered. Without the demons of exterior life, we are surrounded by the L I G H T–H O T E L and the M I R R O R–H O T E L, our dwelling places for a few seconds.

Shadow and reflection
Extreme physical sensation dominates the most sought-after rides in an amusement park. The vertigo of the rollercoaster, the pressure of centrifugal force of the rotor or the caterpillar, the somersaults of the airplane, in these we are thrown, in movement, to the sensations which everyday life does not afford us. Carmela short ride does not affect the body, yet it is amusement because it diverges and because it redirects us. No extreme sensation; it refers us back to the “little sensations” about which Cézanne spoke to us. It is these which are restored in the small ride because the only compatible with a reflection. Only now they can no longer be offered in a still life with apples.
When, at the door of her studio, I saw the made-to-order cart she had designed for “transportation” around the gallery’s small space, I imagined it to be a superfluous accessory. Already old, the modern eye no longer perceives how important it is to displace and subvert people’s everyday practices, so that their experience of art is not reduced to the contemplation of objects on walls. On the cart, alone or in small groups, the spectator experiences this ordinary experience by contrast and even by opposition to the strange, short ride and, in a sort of slow motion, we are given the possibility of isolating ourselves from our everyday, involuntary readings in cities taken over by brand name merchandise.
In our brief stay at the L I G H T–H O T E L and the M I R R O R–H O T E L we will become both shadow and reflection. We will behave like simple, rigorously geometrical characters constructed so as to be certain that the fragmented world or words are the way they are in order that we may fully regain them as we perceive them in motion and that, by recovering and resolving the parts in the whole, words and the world will once again make sense.

[Birds still sing at dawn like the footfalls of nocturnal pedestrians in certain cities.]


Published in:
Carmela Gross: Hotel Balsa. São Paulo: Galeria de Arte Raquel Arnaud, 2003. Exhibition folder.

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