Optical Encounters with Dan Graham

Dan Graham, Heart Pavillion, installation view a the Carnegie Museum of Art. via artnet

Dan Graham, "Heart Pavilion", 1991, two-way mirror glass and aluminum, 94 x 168 x 144 in., Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, A.W. Mellon Acquisition Endowment Fund and Carnegie International Acquisition Fund, 92.5, photo courtesy of the artist, via whitney.org

Emerging from the cavernous darkness of Sadie Benning’s video installation PlayPause, I stepped off the elevator on to the 4th floor of the Whitney Museum of American Art and rubbed my eyes to get my bearings. It was immediately apparent that in so doing, the soft, ploymer contact lens that allows my right eye to overcome its normal nearsightedness, had become dislodged from its intended site over my pupil, and was presently gliding back into the farther recesses of the socket.

When the polite, if stern, gallery guard informed me that the nearest restroom was located on the second floor, I couldn’t imagine stumbling back down all those stairs when I had just arrived. So, relying on my good left eye, I surveyed the terrain. The nearest work in the installation–immediately to my right out from the elevator–provided a convenient solution to my optical predicament. Heart Pavilion, 1991 offered up its straight, perfect mirrored wall for a proper inspection of the corner of my eyeball. As I approached the polished surface, a European couple entered the pavilion ahead of me. Upon entering, the two-way mirror obscured these explorers from my view, while the entire gallery remained on view to them. Face three inches from the pavilion, I scratched away at my cornea, a final strike extracting the offending concave bugger. A quick swab of saliva, and all was back in place.

Stereovision restored, I perambulated through the Heart Pavilion, now empty but for myself. From the inside, I realized that anonymous couple had an optician’s view of my impromptu operation. While perhaps not the erotic or romantic intimacy suggested by the work’s title, it certainly suceeded in instigating an unwitting encounter in the architectural flow. I was left to ponder the ludic as well as political dynamics at work in how these architectural structures frame “a view.” The experience raises thoughts about surveillance, voyeurism, and performance, though such ideas, especially regarding a place of privilege in such non-reciprocal relationships, are not Graham’s alone. The exciting possibilities of Graham’s work are due to the pavilions’ construction with two-way mirrors. Those subjects on the darkened side of the mirror may of course see into the lightened side, but on the brighter side the glass only appears as a reflective surface. However a simple change in lighting may reverse this dynamic: quite suddenly the role of viewer and viewed could be reversed in a Graham pavilion. 

No such magical mutation in lighting design took place that day at the Whitney, but from inside one could observe, with impunity, the flow of other visitors around the open gallery. A guard admonished two young women applying the cosmetics at Girl’s Make-Up Room, 1998-2000. Tourists moved quickly from one black and white text and video to the next. Others pulled faces for the opposing mirror video installations. I lingered for a while and, quite simply, looked.

While the location of the pavilions within the museum gallery may be observed to neuter the opportunity for chance encounters, this viewer found that under the right terms of  contact it was still possible to unsettle the relationship between sight and site.

Dan Graham: Beyond at the Whitney Museum of American Art through October 11.

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