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.
Going 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.
After 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.