Rachel Harrison’s Gone to the Dogs

"Posh Floored as Ali G Tackles Becks", 2003, mixed media, installation view at Arndt-Partner

"Posh Floored as Ali G Tackles Becks", 2003, mixed media, installation view at Arndt & Partner

There is something ghastly to Rachel Harrison’s sculptures. In spite of their material endurance and figurative references, these works are like spectral presences. They are not artifacts, which would imply the remnants of a bygone age. Rather they might be thought of as casts of negative spaces. Looking at installation views of Posh Floored as Ali G Tackles Becks, 2003, a series of works exhibited in 2004 at the Camden Arts Centre and Arndt & Partner, one might recall the famous Pompeii dog. The association is not least due to the texture of the works and their papier-mâché and stucco-like (Parex) surfaces. Engaging Harrison’s work always involves a sort of cultural archeology, but the references involve last week’s People magazine just as often as they do art history.

The black construction in the foreground of the above picture is a dead ringer for the Pompeii dog, an idea furthered by the video projection in the background: a Dalmatian shovels around the camera with its snout. Not that this clarifies things in any way, as the video also brings to mind Disney animations and early William Wegman videos with his Weimaraner lapping up milk.

pompeiiancastofdog_800Going back to Pompeii, the image we see here is one of the plaster casts made during excavations of the site. They are after-the-fact figures of what was once there. All of the organic material was long since decayed, but they left a negative impression in the packed ash. Upon discovering each cavern, excavators were able to fill each void with plaster to create a positive impression, thus leaving the forms of the vanished Romans and their household pets. As this description suggests, the process of discovery and reclamation has a relationship to photographic processes. The rhetoric of the artifact (this is from what was) can be differentiated from the photographic (this has been).

A fair amount of critical attention has been paid to the role of photography in Harrison’s work, but it has focused on the actual photographs in her assemblages (as well as recent typologies, etc.). Instead, consider how the autonomous sculptures might themselves reflect a photographic logic. Perhaps the “ghastly” presence of the stucco-ed shelves, plinths and pedestals is because they are casts of originals, evacuated of material and content—leaving only a rough shell.

This critical lens can’t be applied to all of Harrison’s work by any means, and it may only even apply to particular parts of individual sculptures. The artist plays off the multifarious forms and surfaces in each work (not to mention the titles). Biomorphic bases support “pristine” canned foods and other commodities. Even as the plaster bodies might suggest mummification or voiding, they are whip-lashed back to the present by these other objects—defying any gestalt effect.

emergenceAfter writing that last sentence I decided I needed to clarify my loose understanding of Gestalt theory and turned to Wikipedia. It is perhaps not at all incidental that one of the key aspects of Gestalt systems is the principle of Emergence. The classic demonstration of “emergence” involves a Dalmatian:

Emergence is demonstrated by the perception of the Dog Picture, which depicts a Dalmatian dog sniffing the ground in the shade of overhanging trees. The dog is not recognized by first identifying its parts (feet, ears, nose, tail, etc.), and then inferring the dog from those component parts. Instead, the dog is perceived as a whole, all at once.

WTF. So is Harrison really playing a bunch of dogs off one another? Pompeii and Gestalt theory: But what about Ali G, Posh and Becks? Such vexations provide both the pleasure and frustration of Harrison’s work. Are they like photographic images of things, twice removed? It’s actually not difficult to connect the formal properties of the Pompeii casts to a discussion of Gestalt perception, standing in as they do for recognizable forms. It just doesn’t get you very far.

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3 Responses to “Rachel Harrison’s Gone to the Dogs”

  1. Nicholas Knight Says:

    Thomas Kuhn makes great use of “gestalt” in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, with the principle of “all at once” central to his usage. His point was that new scientific thought systems replaced old ones in a kind of gestalt moment. That is, one can’t see the solar system as being in some halfway state between geocentric and heliocentric. It’s one or the other. And when enough facts, theories, experiments, and laws construct a recognizable edifice for the new model, it snaps into place…all at once.

    Pompeii and Posh and Harrison? I have no idea, but Kuhn is cool.

  2. the power Says:

    The little bit of Kuhn I’ve read I do recall as cool. My association–around the same concept you bring up–is with the term incommensurable.

    It makes me wonder if the term has any relevance to art history, although I posit that it probably does not as cultural conceptual systems seem to function quite differently (whether we consider them dialectical or whatever). Heliocentrism was certainly a “game changer” that re-ordered everything. The only thing even remarkably close in the arts that I can think of might be Duchamp’s readymade but this is also highly debatable, and the privilege of retrospection is crucial here. I don’t think that say, Alberti, completely changed the intellectual model in the same way.

  3. Nicholas Knight Says:

    Yes, “incommensurate” makes the gestalt necessary, since theories can’t blend.

    It’s a fascinating question, trying to think about art history in this way–not in the old art v. science sleeper–but about, as you put it, “cultural conceptual systems.” Perhaps a shift not need rise to the Copernican standard for it to count, though. Wouldn’t it be fair to say that after Warhol, you just can’t do Abstract Expressionism anymore (in the sense of holding on to the “unsoiled” values at its core)?

    Hmm. Maybe there’s not enough here to justify working it out. At any rate, the scientific philosophy functions within its own domain. And art has traditionally cannibalized theory and philosophy not originally intended for it. And furthermore, the cannibalizing is usually based on significant misunderstandings of the philosophy. After all, if it had been understood, it wouldn’t apply to art!

    But the “in retrospect” feature does not seem like a disqualifier to me: after all, even in times of scientific shift, the broad community of practitioners is still holding on to the old model while the new one builds momentum…

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