A specially commissioned critical essay by curator and Hayward Gallery director Ralf Rugoff .The text gives its title to Emmanuelle Laine's first digital artist catalog .
Over the past two years, Emmanuelle Lainé has developed a novel approach to making exhibitions in which different kinds of space – representational, physical, rhetorical – appear to jump, like contagious agents, from one category to the other, leaving spectators equally intrigued and bemused. Elaborating a shrewdly disruptive, all-over aesthetic, these recent installation works transform the dimensions of whatever display space they occupy into disorienting conceptual and perceptual labyrinths, drawing spectators into an exploratory encounter with alternative architectures of thought and experience.
Lainé first fully realised this approach with an exhibition titled Don’t Cheat Me Out of the Fullness of My Capacity! that opened in September 2014 at Composite Gallery in Brussels. As she would with subsequent exhibitions, the artist developed her installation by spending several weeks on site, arranging and/or making the objects on display. Scattered across floors and walls in a loosely-structured mis-en-scene, these ranged from store-bought items (whisks, mobile phones, decorative cord, plastic watering cans) to accumulations of organic material (gravel, clay, twigs), display furniture (shelves, tables), and photographic images in a variety of formats.
In addition, the exhibition included several ungainly, formless sculptures that the artist produced on site by pressing various objects against a mass of clay and casting the imprint in acrylic resin or plaster. The largest of these – a yellowish, roughly cast and irregularly shaped form – hung from the ceiling, suspended above a coffee table that rested on a low mound of gravel and clay (the apparent site of the artist’s molding activity). With detritus lying here and there across the floor, the exhibition suggested less a finished work than an installation in progress, or perhaps one in an early stage of being dismantled.
None of this would have been particularly noteworthy in and of itself – producing an artwork on site, for instance, is hardly a new development – were it not for the fact that Lainé also covered a number of walls with life-sized, floor-to-ceiling photo murals that depicted various areas of her own installation. By skilfully blending these wall-sized photographs with the surrounding architectural environment, Lainé effectively engineered a series of disarming trompe l’oeil illusions, breaking open the contained space of the gallery in unpredictable ways. Meanwhile, things depicted in the photo murals – objects shown leaning against a gallery wall, say, or sitting on a corner shelf – were easily mistaken, on first glance, for actual items occupying the physical site, further enhancing the viewer’s sense of a zone where distinctions between two and three dimensional space were disconcertingly – and thrillingly – uncertain.
On closer inspection, visitors realized that Lainé’s photo murals were not exactly faithful reproductions of the scene before them. While these life-sized images seemed to more or less mirror the actual objects and gallery space directly in front of them, they also presented evidence of alternative configurations, presumably recorded at earlier moments in the installation’s evolution. Thus an object placed in a particular part of the gallery might appear in a photo mural occupying a different area altogether – or it might not show up at all. Adding to the confusion, the photo murals also depicted objects that were no longer evident in the exhibition space, presumably edited out from the installation’s ‘final cut’ by the artist.
On the surface, Don’t Cheat Me… seemed to be poised somewhere between ‘post-internet’ sculpture’s blurring of 2D and 3D media and the emphasis on process and dispersed materiality pioneered by post-minimalist artists (largely as a challenge to the modernist claim of an autonomous identity for works of art). Yet in disrupting the classical legibility of the ‘white cube’ milieu, Lainé also imbued it with an uncanny stuttering; rather than a territory regulated by an ideal of transparency, her transformed gallery environment perplexed visitors with unreliable echoes and spatial doppelgangers that modelled out-of-sync, alternate takes of thatspace. The resulting perceptual ambiguities extended not only to a visitor’s sense of space but of time as well. In a sense, Lainé’s installation recalibrated the temporal coordinates of vision: it engagingly suggested that our present purview is limited not only by specific physical parameters, but also by the particular moment in which it is framed. (The site-specific and ephemeral character of the installation only served to further underscore this contingent character of our seeing and comprehension).
As mentioned earlier, the seemingly random compositions and left-over traces of production in Don’t Cheat Me… conveyed a sense of aftermath or of interrupted activity. As the artist Ilya Kabakov notably observed in his essay “The Total Installation”, such a scene engages our curiosity and prompts us to ask how this given situation came about, to wonder what unseen circumstances produced the evidence before us. In the case of Lainé’s installation, the visitor may search for clues by cross-checking back and forth between the record provided by the photo murals and the actual placement of objects in the gallery. Rather than passive spectators, we end up become more active in our observations as we try to identify and sort out the continuities and discontinuities between images and physical space.
However, Lainé’s installation went beyond simply engaging its spectators in an effort to reconstruct, in a forensic-like manner, an implied time-line of the artist’s past actions in the gallery. More significantly, it provoked the viewer to question some basic assumptions about how we categorize objects and images – and not simply because, as has often been noted in reviews of her work, her sculptural practice conflates both process and result, the space of production and that of display. Going a step further, the exhibition’s embrace of contradiction and paradox seemed to perpetually defer any kind of definitive reading of some of its key components.
In terms of its canny exploration of these concerns, the installation’s most explicit element, and its most immediately attention-grabbing visual motif, was the variegated yellow oblong form that seemed (on first impression) to stretch across the back wall of the gallery. In fact, the form’s continuous surface was an illusion – a perspectival deceit forged by lining up over-lapping murals on the back walls of the gallery’s three connecting rooms. While it commanded the exhibition space like a monumental abstract painting, this odd floating form revealed itself, upon further scrutiny, to be an enlarged photographic image of the amorphous cast sculpture that hung from the ceiling on chains. In setting up this dramatic disjunction between an abject object and its alluring photographic representation, Lainé wittily illuminated the manner in which the apparent identity of a thing is determined not by its “effective properties” (to paraphrase philosopher Slavoj Zizek) but by its place in a larger symbolic network. Thus, as Zizek notes – and as Lainé’s installation slyly reminded visitors – “the same object can function successively as a disgusting reject and as a sublime, charismatic apparition.” Identity, in this schema, is a shifting effect, a mobile relationship rather than a stable entity.
Lainé continued her exploration of this terrain in her next exhibition, Le Plaisir dans la confusion des frontiers, held at the Fondation d’enterprise Ricard in Paris. Elaborating on the format she first developed in Brussels, the artist again spent several weeks in the gallery, composing and photographing a succession of mis-en-scenes that featured a mix of existing objects and molds created in situ. In the exhibition, the latter came were presented as fairly abject objects – cast-offs bereft of any clearly legible identity. But their anthropomorphic forms (one mould resembled an eye mask and the other a pair of fingers) were made evident in the four wall-scaled photo murals that Lainé strategically placed to create illusory vistas throughout the Fondation’s L-shaped exhibition space. In these life-sized photographic representations, the molds appeared in a striking variety of poses and guises: lined up against the gallery wall like proper artworks on display; lying flattened on the floor like discarded production elements; suspended from the ceiling like theatrical props in storage. With off-kilter humour, Lainé deftly shifted and subverted their apparent identities and the narratives that might underpin them.
The title of this exhibition could well serve as a motto for the artist’s approach. Lainé’s installations generate an almost anarchic delight in their détournement of the clinically packaged space embodied by the average gallery, as well as the corollary set of fixed assumptions that we typically apply to our encounters with artworks. In contrast to academic styles of gallery critique, the artist’s more experiential and playful approach – with its seductive deceptions and exuberant blurring of boundaries – enacts a kind of joyous destabilizing. Conceptually, it also evinces an extensive generosity: the work is propelled not by the exclusive logic of “either-or”, but by an associative branching of connections along the lines of “and… and… and…”. Lainé’s art, in essence, is animated by an aesthetic of commingling and hybridity. Of course, this border-dissolving disposition pits it directly against classical notions of stability. Boundaries and categorical segregation are the cornerstones of our everyday sense of order (in Greek, tellingly, one of the meanings of “nomos”, the law, is “that which is divided up into parts.”). This emphasis on firm borders extends to our models of organized space, exemplified here by the gallery itself.
In her exhibition at the Fondation d’enterprise Ricard, as well as in a subsequent installation, Il parait que le fond de l’être est en train de changer? made for the 2015 Lyon Biennalle, Lainé drolly undermined the gallery’s conceptual hygiene while simultaneously making use of its furnishings and equipment. In both of these installations, the artist included chairs, display tables and vitrines from the host institutions, using them in ways that rendered their identity slightly ambiguous, floating somewhere between sculpture, exhibition furniture and film-set decor. In the Musee d’art Contemporain in Lyon, Lainé also added objects related to storage and transport – travel crates, wooden palettes, barrels – as if incorporating the museum’s usually unseen activities into the scope of her exhibition. In a further self-reflexive twist, the photo murals in all of these recent installations were produced by a well-known exhibition photographer commissioned by the artist (and whom she also employs to document the finished works).
To a limited extent, these installations recall a seminal strain of installation art, developed in the 1960s by artists as diverse as Robert Morris and Michael Asher, in which the work directly addresses the character of an exhibition space – its physical and architectural elements as well as its institutional and social context. On account of its play with the tension between representation and presence, one could also cite William Anastasi’s Six Sites (1966–67) installation, a masterpiece of tautology for which the artist reproduced the walls of the Virginia Dwan gallery at 90% scale in silkscreened photographs that were then exhibited on those same gallery walls. More recent examples of works that self-reflexively intervene in the exhibition space range from Carsten Holler’s installations of adjoining, floor-to-ceiling mirrored walls to Jeppe Hein’s Invisible Moving Wall, a standard-looking gallery wall that moves across an exhibition space at an almost imperceptibly slow speed. In one way or another, all of these works seek to destabilize our pre-existing assumptions about the gallery as an ostensibly stable framework for displaying works of art. In the process, they provoke viewers to look askance at various aspects of exhibition spaces – and how we behave in them – that we habitually take for granted.
But while Lainé’s installations play off their gallery context, they seem to engage with the exhibition space primarily as a kind of rhetorical construct. In the 1970s, Gordon Matta-Clark cut physical holes in architectural spaces in order to expose what he called the “containerization of the environment”; Lainé, by cutting virtual holes in gallery walls, prompts us to consider the containerization of our perception and thought. She mixes up the self-reflexive aspects of her installations and integrates within an expansively heterogeneous field of cultural references, traversed by channels of unexpected cross-talk between common objects, images downloaded from the internet, casts, studio production materials, gallery furniture, et cetera. Rather than asking the viewer to contemplate singular ‘aesthetic’ objects, Lainé’s installation immerses its audience in a network of proliferating relationships and effects, short-circuiting our habitual impulse to frame new experiences within already-familiar categories.
Beyond its allusions to the space of the gallery, Lainé’s work also conjures that ever-more dominant cultural space: the dematerialized realm of the world wide web, which among its many other uses, serves as a global exhibition site. It is estimated that approximately one billion photographs are uploaded to websites every day. In this context, the truism that our culture’s profusion of photographic imagery creates a kind of screen or barrier between individuals and their surroundings seems too simplistic; for one thing, it assumes that images are somehow not part of our immediate environment. Lainé’s recent installations reflect on this state of affairs with a lively acuity that distinguishes it from much so-called “post-internet” art. Exploring the shifting dynamics of how we conceptualize our incessant movements back and forth between virtual and physical spaces, these works inscribe viewers into a dialogue between 2D and 3D modes of representation. Lainé effectively invites us to imagine them as interlacing positions on a spectrum, rather than as opposing categories. Her wall-sized photo murals essentially function as conduits, rather than barriers, to our experience of “actuality”; arousing our curiosity about the variations they record, they propel us to re-examine the physical information around us with renewed attentiveness.
The artist’s regular use of molds, casts and imprinting techniques plays a key role in her subversive play with our general notions of identity and order. In his influential theory of signs, the pioneering semiotician C. S. Peirce proposed the term “index” to describe a type of sign defined by having a physical connection to its referent. Photographs, inasmuch as they record traces of light reflected off a subject, have long been considered a type of indexical sign. As an object, meanwhile, a mold can be accorded a kind of threshold status: tracing within its outlines the presence of an absence, its negative form dematerializes the very thing that it indexically summons. In Lainé’s recent works, the promiscuous interplay of these disparate indexical media seems to call into question the relationship between sign and referent, object and representation. Identity, rather than approximating its conventional definition as a bounded and singular entity, appears here as something more akin to a medium of exchange, a site of ceaseless circulation, translation and semiotic contagion.
In its modelling of a heterogeneous, open-ended aesthetic encounter, Lainé’s work activates the viewer’s process of exploring an exhibition. By playfully ‘decentering’ the perspective that we customarily bring to our engagement with works of art, it calls attention to the manner in which our perception and interpretation as spectators constitute a kind of performance. At the same time, her work also reflects on the ways in which the visible, once associated in Western traditions with an unambiguous legibility, increasingly resembles a trap, an endless labyrinth without egress. To the artist, this is not necessarily a tragic circumstance: it simply means that we need to keep our minds open as well as our eyes. Finally, in wreaking havoc with various perceptual and representational categories, Lainé’s installations ultimately gesture to the co-dependence in art of noise and information, order and disorder, continuities and inconsistencies. If they invite us to jettison our conventional mental maps, it is mainly to help us to clear a space in which new, less predictable ways of thinking and seeing can emerge.
Ilya Kabakov, On the Total Installation (Bonn: Cantz, 1995), p. 248
 Slajov Zizek, Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan Through Popular Culture (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1992), p. 143
Ralph Rugoff is an American-born curator, the director of London's Hayward Gallery since 2006, and the curator of the Venice Biennale in 2019. Rugoff was director of the Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts in San Francisco for nearly six years, before becoming the director of London's Hayward Gallery.Rugoff was artistic director of the 58th Venice Biennale in 2019. He was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire in the 2019 Birthday Honours for services to art.