Tony Brown (1984)

“Tony Brown,” Parachute, no. 34 (March – May 1984), p. 51.

Tony Brown
Ydessa Gallery, Toronto
October 15 - December 10

Tony Brown’s exhibition has turned a white gallery into a black space; but in the reversal the gallery’s presence has not been denied. This presence has only been heightened in the darkness in a confirmation of the gallery as an ideal, transcendent space, a space outside social reality and beyond the body. The mechanical effect of the work gives a lie to the presence it provokes, however: presence is repeatable.

Basically an installation, the audio-slide projection at-tempts a filmic effect, aware of film’s potential for popular appeal. While an installation in a gallery, the context has been obliterated in a blackness similar to a movie theatre. But unlike in a movie theatre, we have to present ourselves to the work in all our corporeality, walking into a dark, unfamiliar space. That is, while the context of the gallery here is abandoned, the context and history of installation art demand that our bodies be present and active. We present ourselves to this work, not it to us. And in this presentation we receive its effects. Its presence is a guarantee of our own. The installation represents an event, but gives it a presence. Or rather, the slides represent an event and the apparatus gives it a presence. Perhaps that event can be mechanically repeated since the artist seems to take it as an archetype—but as an archetype of experience that is socially determined, even though translated into the gallery it is given an existential basis.

Two projectors throw slide dissolves onto a “screen”; together, slide and screen form the image of a house. Inside this dollhouse-like form which stands suspended in the darkness (in reality it is supported by a massive steel construction), the two dissolves produce the effect of a bed spinning in a polka-dot wall-papered room, the model bed which we find spinning behind our backs in the gallery. A text accompanies the slides, a narrative to their filmic effect: “a moment you remember but don’t know why... when the power fails/and the lights go out/and you’re not sure/what to think or say/alone in your room/with nothing to do but/wait for something to/happen that never/does so you lie there/dreaming of another’s life... LOST DREAMS.” Image and text seem to express the banality of the everyday, the socialization of the suburbs. But the banality is disturbed, something happens in a jarring crack and bolt of light as a hydraulic motor splits the screen after a sequence of red “warning” slides alternating with darkness. This split is a transgression of the screen just as the mundane subject of the slides is a transgression of what we expect from film. The delivery of that special effect binds us to the spectacle but returns us to ourselves at the same time—or at least once that fright has died down. But it is the consciousness of that climactic moment which is to be given value and to be remembered in light of a reconstruction of the past event, which is to be taken in its own terms as a non-event.

We should not take this climactic effect, for which the apparatus has been constructed, to be the outcome of the narrative desire for “something to happen.” Rather it is the not so restrained fury of an artist reacting to the past in his new mastery and saying: “You want something to happen? Well, I’ll show you something!” This spectacle of mastery and revenge is further represented on the poster which reprints found footage of a bungalow exploding in three frames. The decision for such a dramatic presentation of this content indicates that the work is more than a metaphor for the potential explosiveness of every domestic situation and household.

This work purports to be an experience “descriptive” of the alienation of the everyday, and a recreation of a climatic falling away in a moment of existential anxiety or fear. This is a very extravagant, elaborate, and expensive apparatus, as sophisticated and inventive as it is in its effects, to present or prove that one experience. The effect is too great for its content. The work seems constructed to deliver this one effect; and it is repeatable: one experiences the same intensity of the jolt even with the knowledge that it is coming. What does one take away, or want to return to, unless it is to repeat that same effect, which turns the work into a spectacle and makes mass appeal equivalent to its commodity effects? Whether one wants to return depends on whether we take this to be an adequate or revelatory representation of this experience; but we suspect it is a dramatization of something else. Moreover, why would we give value to this experience in a fetishizing, compulsive return to it, especially if it is something we have surpassed or grown out of?

On the other hand, perhaps the artist is presenting us a type of memento mori, and also saying that our desire to escape the mundane conditions of the every-day, with their rhythms imposed by technical rationality allied to capital, falls prey to the commodity of the spectacle that is produced and reproducible as a mechanical effect—special effects movies, for instance. But if this is the intention of the artist, we cannot separate it from the presentation he has chosen: the effects of the work return us to a desire on the part of the artist—his will to mastery and revenge. This will which is a will to destruction is also a will to self-destruction, and can be doubly expressed in a sexual affect or in the condition the narrative of the slides present.

These multiple desires then find expression in the notion of presence given to the work in the gallery. Thus content and presentation—the bedroom and the gallery—join in the same desire for effect. This position and presence facing the work, which becomes a void of presence or presentness, belong to a conservative tradition of philosophical aesthetics, stretching from Burke’s treatise on the sublime and Kant’s formalist aesthetics to Bataille’s aesthetic of erotic transgression and Michael Fried’s defense of modernism and attack on minimalism. All base the aesthetic effect on that which suspends the intolerability of the body and the everyday. By the very value of presence given to the work, this exhibition unconsciously reproduces the same conditions it criticizes.