CONJUNCTIONS:54, Spring 2010

A Mobile in Ten Parts
Miranda Mellis


The original “stuffed animal” referred to an animal post taxidermy, killed, skinned, stuffed with cotton and rags and sewn back up in a wooden frame, a phantasm with a pair of glass eyes. Sometimes a taxidermied animal is set in a fictional habitat that, were it to come back to life, it would not recognize as its own. (Like deaths in amusement parks, this occurs more often than you might think.) The educational diorama then blurs into curiosity cabinet. The animals become, in death, misrepresentations of themselves. “Let’s put the dead thing in context,” someone suggests. But what is context for the dead thing?


If your pet has passed on to the “Rainbow Bridge,” one company suggests, you may want to consider freeze-drying its inanimate body, to keep it near you in effigy. Or, for $150,000 you can now have your pet cloned. For those who are not comfortable with the impermanence of forms, this is a step up from taxidermy. Does one still grieve the original pet? Or, in the age of biomechanical reproduction and infinitely reproducible sameness, is the original pet to be viewed merely as a prototype, and do we instead grieve the obsolescence of our future commodities? What is the difference between nature and commodity when it comes to love and pleasure? What is the difference between impermanence and obsolescence?


The word “window” refers to openings, prior to the invention of glass, which allowed a building to breathe. They were called wind eyes. Have you ever looked through a grimy glass wind eye so opaque it barely filtered the light? And did you perchance think you saw, as into a dirty television, action figures? Perhaps they wore fatigues. Within moments you thought you heard them running through the building, their shouts of war echoing in the halls. Or (more fortunately) perhaps you thought you could make out shapes resembling animals, leaves, baby faces, carnivals, nebulae, salutary geometries, embrous filigree bonbons, or stencil birdlike intimations? As with auguries derived from cracks in mud paths, tea leaves, and the firmament, ambiguous surfaces resemble the mind that is looking (as Kurt Schwitters says of collages and their makers).


First-person narration is an armature of subjectivity that unifies all the variegated elements of story. Through that singular voice—an artifice, to be sure—is transmitted the vapor of reality. Similarly, the installation artist mobilizes a first-person point of view to unify the variegated elements of installation. We might view its organizational patterns as continuous with the artist’s subjectivity, the more or less masked, more or less reflexive ur-context. We are made aware that we are contacting the worker via the work. When the artist wields subjectivity as his or her subject, in order to reflect upon another scene of (more or less masked, more or less reflexive) subjectivity (for example, science) and to argue for a reckoning with the ramifications of that subjectivity (the scientist’s) with respect to the subject, then the “first-person” function itself is richly emptied out; it becomes a rhetorical figure.


As we enter the contested site of superimposition (overlapping the ethical subject of installation with the instrumental object of laboratory), we see planes of continuity (temporal, associative, ideological, disciplinary) where they were not obvious; ruptures and power where they were concealed; the undoing of archaic racionations, and even auras (of the polis? the earth? our condition?). The objects before us have become metonyms for whatever has forced them into social consciousness in a new guise: if flag for nation and crown for king, then polar bear for climate change and T-shirt for sweatshop. And thus may semantic figures, in their immanent recognizability, show (by comparison) the staggered relays, botched negotiations, and time lags—the slow stitch, the shadow fight—between perfect insight and broken infrastructure.


Suppose identity is prepositional: You live outside/inside of a prison; outside/inside of a national border; outside/inside of a battlefield; outside/inside of educational, health-care, or economic systems; under/over the table; beyond/within reach of help. Recall Julia Kristeva’s articulation of the crucial role of abjection: Whoever is not abject is negatively defined by whoever is. When am I me only because I am not you? Self is an unstable infrastructure and a mutable currency. Syntax describes cultural values. Syntax is a social arrangement.


Ostranenie, Viktor Shklovsky’s term for the method of defamiliarizing (“estranging”) what had become obscure through overfamiliarity, makes the commonplace shocking and therefore newly luminous, re/cognizable. But what if one works in reverse and, beginning with the illegible artifact, one endeavors to find for it a context in which it might become familiar, legible? For example, one places the vivid nonesuch (a headdress of bird skulls, an albino rhino) in an art museum where it is framed, named, located, and elevated to the highest cultural stature, swimming in the same current as ready-mades, wrapped islands, and the Dutch Masters of Light: inside. Thus are the human arts a commons. (The question of animal arts, such as the architectural flourishes of bowerbirds, is usefully mobilized by the question of animal rights, the intelligent artfulness of animals being one argument for their rights.) And so, at the museum, where we are supposed to go to contemplate the sublime, we find that everything is ordinary; anything is within reach of a domesticating framework. The world is not imaginary but we must imagine it; we must light and relight our eyes.


Representation gives us the feeling that what is happening right now is also happening (or has happened, or might happen) elsewhere in a different (more vivid) way. Representation alters our sensations of time and its motions, as well as objects and their history. The placing of an object into an alien context, in which it is framed nonetheless as more factual than ever, is how scientists make art. The placing of an object into an alien context, in which it is framed as fully imaginary, is how artists exceed science in speculative range. Our curiosity is as aroused by the “scientific” or “artistic” object as such as it is by the representational processes of appropriation, framing, and displacement that occur under the signs of science and art, disciplines that, however differently valued (culturally speaking) themselves, value similarly the play between aporia and gnosis, light and shadow. The installation can function as an experimental laboratory; the laboratory might become the site of political intervention/be made meaningfully unproductive. (The sign of production, in any case, casts a shadow.)


On YouTube there is a video of a three-year-old afraid of her own shadow. She stands with the sun behind her in the glare of a playground. When she moves, her shadow moves, and she weeps with fear. Every time she notices her shadow, she cries. Every time she cries, the audience laughs. Haplessly framed, voided, simulated, and reproduced, she tries to escape. But she can find no refuge from her evil twin or from the unseen audience. Trees’ wayward shadows lace crookedly, weaving disorder through the system of the playground. A nearby building’s shadow makes a large swathe whose edges demarcate a seeming interiority, a provisional indoor quality: It is colder just inside the wall of that shadow than it is just outside. The shadow of a small bird making its way over to a swing set is a film, a moving slant rhyme. A mimic, the shadow moves as the sparrow moves. Though the outline of the shadow, taken by itself, would not necessarily convey that it is cast by a bird (it could be a scrap of paper, or a teacup, or a hand), its movements are birdlike. The shadow is anamorphic, seemingly alive even.


An antecedent of the artist’s installation (alongside the bowerbird) is the wunderkammer, the cabinet of marvels, whose startling beauty cannot be separated from the (colonizing, ecocidal) violence of empire building (that is to say, private property, commodity, profit, and acquisition). The wunderkammer brings the monstrare down to scale, redistributing and containing the uncanny marvels of creation (alternately considered works of divine punishment, wonder, and design) for both aesthetic and moral purposes. The installation, also invested in aesthetics and morality, operates material forms as social, conceptual forces. Things are repurposed, defined not by their intended uses (whether sacred or banal) but rather by their shaping, sensous contact with the turning world: the world-historical, the world sensorium. The installation describes a view of history, a politics of recollection, and an aesthetic (the etymology of “aesthetic” describes sense making in both senses of the sensible: cognizable and sensorial). A thought experiment suggests itself: Imagine that all things are continuous with one another, that your subjectivity is not located inside you, but rather distributed, permeating. To take up this thought experiment would mean to willingly switch places, to imagine ourselves as others, and to meet the world with the very care we desire for ourselves.