Blissing Out

Anthony McCall, You and I, 2007; Horizontal (III) Installation view at Sean Kelly Gallery, New York, 2007. © Anthony McCall; Photography: Steven Harris; Courtesy: Sean Kelly Gallery, New York

During his appearance at our series Conversations with Artists on February 15, Anthony McCall elaborated on the experiential character of his “solid light” installations. At one point he said:

You are incorporated into [the installations], and they’re absorbing . . . people always reach out and touch these membranes because they’re very paradoxical . . . I don’t like the blissing out . . . it doesn’t need you to think, it just needs you to be there.

When I heard McCall say this, I couldn’t help feeling confused—disillusioned even. What did he mean by “blissing out”? Why didn’t he like it? Did this mean viewers like me couldn’t like it either?

Interaction with light is an experience necessary to fully understanding McCall’s enormous ‘solid-light’ installations. Often featuring huge three-dimensional cones, waves, and lines of light projected in darkened lofts or galleries, these installations transcend projectors and screens, playing with the dimensionality of light and blurring the distinctions between cinema, form, and space. It’s easy to lose yourself in such an atmosphere. At times it seems the installations are almost begging you to bliss out. So why must McCall tell us to control ourselves when it is so tempting to abandon our thoughts in his art?

Further into the conversation I found my answer. McCall explained that he avoids creating wholly immersive environments where the viewer is prone to unconscious pleasure. Meaning, he doesn’t believe art should overwhelm or sedate the mind.

“Blissing out” is not the wrong way to experience his art, but it is not a fulfilling way. It allows viewers to detach themselves from active aesthetic experience and understanding. If I’m in a position to lose myself in a McCall installation, I don’t need to think or be present; I wouldn’t need the art, and the art wouldn’t need me.

With this renewed perspective, I’m looking forward to March 28, when I’ll have the chance to hear from Janine Antoni, the second of three Conversations this spring. In her work, Antoni forces herself and the viewer to be physically engaged in art; there’s absolutely no opportunity for blissing out when Antoni’s around. Her performance-based pieces are more aggressive than Anthony McCall’s subtle, ethereal sculptures, and it will be interesting to weed out the similarities between these artists’ radically different approaches to engaging the viewer.

Madeline Bouton, Center for the Study of Modern Art Intern

In February, the Conversation Continues

The Center for the Study of Modern Art’s series Conversations with Artists is halfway through its sixth season. An integral part of the Center’s programming, the series has been engaging the D.C.-area community with leading and emerging contemporary visual artists since 2006.

Janine Antoni, “Inhabit,” Digital C-print, 2009, 116 1/2 x 72 in. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Each season has a theme that ties the conversations together. This season’s theme, “Art as Experience,” emphasizes the importance of experience over interpretation, drawing much from the philosophy of museum founder Duncan Phillips as well as theorist John Dewey whose writings on what constitutes an experience in art inspired the theme. While the experience of an artwork may be validated with the expiration of its material (material that may very well be integral to the piece) we must transcend this materiality to experience the purity of the artist’s intent.

It goes without saying that it is more difficult to have an experience with some artists’ work than others. Sometimes we just don’t get it. Even after a wonderfully in-depth conversation with an artist we still may not understand his or her intent. I can’t tell you how many times I have left a conversation more confused than when it began–but I consider these inconclusive discussions a success on the artist’s part. He or she has set me on a search for understanding.

You may not need to view the artist’s work in real time (as opposed to slides) in order to have an experience, to understand the intent.  These artists are so well versed in explaining and relating their work that you can form a fond appreciation from merely a 2D experience. Then there are artists for whom the conversation is a performance, in which case the conversation is the experience, and you cannot help but be enveloped in the intent (or perhaps realize the trickery after-the-fact).

This fall we heard from two artists, Wolfgang Laib and Jill Downen, both of whose works are densely material and implicitly spiritual, as well as from the London-based artist collective, The Otolith Group – whose conversation/performance challenged notions of how we interpret images in contemporary society.

The conversations continue in February when we welcome Anthony McCall, whose work focuses on the relationship of the human body with space, creating a heightened sense of self awareness. In the video below, McCall discusses his light sculpture Between You and I, which was part of Creative Time’s first quadrennial PLOT/09: This World & Nearer Ones.

Performance artists Janine Antoni and William Pope.L round out the 2011-12 season in March and April. Antoni describes her work and relationship with material in Art21’s segment on “Loss and Desire.”

If you are in D.C., you can check out William Pope.L’s “crawl” piece The Great American Way on view at the Corcoran Gallery of Art as part of 30 Americans, on view through February 12, 2012.

Megan Clark, Manager of Center Initiatives

Conversations with Artists programs require advance registration as space is limited. Visit the museum calendar for more information and to make a reservation.