Neither/Body/Story/Room: Two Sculptures by Katrin Sigurdardottir
The room is ideal and real, minute and enormous. Its walls are pierced by windows, thresholds, a proscenium. But it is entered through a flat mirage of deep space, and the architecture’s solid parts appear provisional. The box of the building-in-the-building does not entirely enclose itself, and even in imagination you, the visitor—with your particular mass, depth-perception, and memories—cannot be properly and safely placed within it. The room breathes or blurs through the foregrounded, two-dimensional backdrop-vista, to dissipate in general air beyond it. It is not a stable size; you drown in it. But at the same time you crash through its barriers, tower over its miniature details, trip against its disorienting angles, and find yourself outside it again, suddenly, even in imagination bounced back into the intimate space of infinite distance.
Light bulbs cast a warm, domestic glow that ashes into long, canyon-like shadows. The sun or moon or chandelier or footlight or spotlight is fixed wrong, so that the play of bright and dark that organizes up and down and here and there feels backward, inside out, and the theatrical mise-en-scène stretches, attenuates toward a wild horizon that appears to be variously clumped with rock and bushes, afloat in glacial flux, lost in self-replicating city blocks, or slammed impossibly against the far-off, crystalline ceiling of the white-painted plywood sky. So, you’re inside again, suddenly, a giant in the dollhouse of the privately perceived world.
A sketch or model of a place is satisfying, remains believable, as long as you don’t get too close. With proximity, you expect increased specifics, an intensification of detail to tell your senses that you have arrived. As your eyes adjust to dimness, nearness, or expanse you anticipate new, subtle information. When this expectation is disappointed, and assumptions about what it’s like to understand location are not upheld or won’t stay grounded in the tangibility of fact—then you desire detail more ardently. And so you are faced, again, with the irreducibly mocked-up, artificial quality of the object of desire. When the beloved thing is built exactly to fantasy’s specifications, it emerges as a monster. Dreams that come true literally are nightmares. So, with their wires showing and handmade façades, these vacant, diminutive, gravity-defying, illuminated, incomplete, and cozy places plunge you—the visitor whose dream this is—into a familiar alienation. The plans that map the sites are so schematic, so simplified, as to be incomprehensible. That is, they would be if you thought about them logically or tried to enlarge the sketches to what inevitable human narcissism calls “life size.” In your eagerness to know, to possess these fantasies, however, you skip that step. Your longing flashes out to fill the ersatz containers as they are, flows into their flimsy corners, and just misses meeting itself there.
The upside-down rooms speared on the spokes of the light-fixture/wheel, like the tall criss-crossing shadows shed by the suspended model theater, or the layers of cliff and foliage that step back in perspective toward a made-up vanishing point, are units that occur in sync. Their relation is the series, with one iteration touching, following and preceding its not-quite-identical others like clauses in a discontinuous, hypnotic utterance. The proliferating object-phrase draws you into its meaning-shapes. Its parts articulate a kind of tacit, spatial sentence: One chamber after another equals a house; one shadow after another stages a shadow-play. One site after another sums up experience. “I remember a place like this, and like this…” Adjacency or sequencing, however, doesn’t carry you across the permanent ellipsis. What you want is a nostalgic story that tells you where/who you are. What you get is your body in a room-within-a-room, your idea as a shadow-layered shadow.
Your head is a theater, but not a purely cognitive one. It is wired to the synaptic, meaty, fragile body that cranes its neck and stubs its toe, whose eyes slowly adjust to dimness, nearness, etc., that feels a certain way in certain settings and can’t explain why. Perhaps because it can’t explain, this physical mind is always looking for mirrors and shelters. It inhales and exhales sensory data, gathers information about where the edge is in the dark, supplies character and plot, carries images with it in the small room of the skull and watches them flicker as projections on the walls of the bigger bodies of house or landscape.
Here are two famous anecdotes to read, like fairy-tales or rehearsal scripts, while standing in the room with Katrin Sigurdardottir’s sculpture. Their interest, like hers, is the intensity with which we ray out through desire toward objects, attempting to make of them receptacles to hold us close to our own history, to all we’ve lost—and how the thing, the place, beckons, absorbs, reflects, resists our infiltration and stays stubbornly itself.
As a young man, Jacques Lacan worked as a fisherman. Out in a boat on a sunny day, the light scintillating off the water, he and another man were rowing through the shipping in the harbor.
“You see that,” his friend said, pointing to a bit of floating garbage, an empty sardine can bobbing on the wavelets. “You see that, but it doesn’t see you.” Right then the light glanced brilliantly off the metal and hit their eyes. “Yes, it does,” the theorist-to-be realized. “It looked at me.”
In Berlin in 1976, Morton Feldman took Samuel Beckett out for a beer. He showed him a score he had written, inspired by Beckett’s Film (starring Buster Keaton, who travels from a troubling rubble-strewn outdoors into the slapstick black hole of his room, which is his mind). Beckett wrote on a page of the score a poem or series of phrases titled “Neither,” which Feldman took as the libretto for his opera of the same (non)name.
to and fro in shadow from inner to outer shadow
from impenetrable self to impenetrable unself by way of neither
as between two lit refuges whose doors once neared gently close, once
away turned from gently part again
beckoned back and forth and turned away
heedless of the way, intent on the one gleam or the other
unheard footfalls only sound
till at last halt for good, absent for good from self and other
then no sound
then gently light unfading on that unheeded neither
Text by Frances Richard
Frances Richard is a poet, based in Brooklyn. Her book See Through was published by Four Way Books in 2003. She is a contributing editor at the art and culture magazine Cabinet, a founding editor of Fence magazine and a frequent contributor to Artforum. She teaches at Barnard College in New York City and the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence.