by Philippe Pirotte
Sometimes I think of Gabriel Lester as a modern day Prospero, but then a young and lighthearted version of Shakespeare’s character, using his ‘art’ (Prospero’s word for magic) to veil and unveil our encounter with the fabrication of reality.1 In Act IV of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Prospero says ‘We are such stuff / As dreams are made on, and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep.’ Prospero’s metaphor applies not just to the pageant he’s created on his fictional island, but also to the pageant Shakespeare presented in his Globe Theater—the ‘great globe itself.’ Dramatic illusion in turn becomes a metaphor for the ‘real’ world outside the Globe.2 Revealing but also reveling in the scenic conditions of our contemporary sensory experience, Gabriel Lester adopts the role of a creator of ambiguities. In his work he takes on the very techniques—including control and surveillance—that capitalist modernity generated in terms of experiences of distraction, and which changed our perceptual modalities, in order to explore mutations in the experience of time, the possibility of contemplation, and the daydream, as counter-strategies.
Being someone of the first generations accustomed to distracted perception, encountering the world through film, TV, Internet, and magazines, Lester began working as an artist during the historical moment wherein the media started to determine our contemporary geography of dispersion, and set out to interfere with reality. Since the 1980s we entered the era that somebody is really capable to live exhaustively in media, the moment where a big part of image production is aimed at replacing reality, or wherein this type of image masks itself as the ‘real.’ Still, Lester’s ways of working with mediated reality and immediacy focus on temporality, memory, atmospheres, emotions, and moods, invisible things—not to be grasped by a perpetual present of anonymous, decontextualized information. He is interested in particular states of mind, induced by the cinematic and the architectural, foremost when both converge in an ‘imaginary,’ which is an emotional space as well as a mental one.
In a lot of his work Gabriel Lester seems to look back to the experience of initial cinema, turning effects into affects, and motion into emotion: the invocation of wonder and magic by material or technological means, upon which the experience of the sensible is built. Early cinema, especially in its relationship to architecture, played a significant role in the changes of industrial modernity that historians of technology describe as the greatest technological revolution in history: the construction of an increasingly artificial world. As we adjusted to the artificiality of modern space, cinema arrived to both re-imagine the built environment and re-create artificial worlds on the screen.
With most of his installations, Lester offers us a cinematic experience in our physical environment, their ‘architecture’ partaking in materializing the imagination in the sensible world. This is most clear in his ‘film in mime’—installation How to Act (1999/2011), a precise and methodical installation of colored lights, edited onto a selection of sounds, music, and melodies, or in his very recent ‘phantom play’ Super Sargasso Sea (2013). In both works optical and sound situations produce disconnections of sensation from the cliché of human experience, revealing the thing itself, as the ‘asubjective’ affect, the space of pure potential, or as Deleuze liked to call it, the ‘event.’ Unlike Sam Spade (played by Humphrey Bogart) in the 1941 movie the The Maltese Falcon wrongly paraphrasing Shakespeare, Lester’s installations and environments aren’t the ‘stuff that dreams are made of’ because the ‘stuff of dreams’ as we use it today refers to a scenario one can only fantasize—something devoutly to be wished but in the end futile. But Prospero’s—or Lester’s—‘stuff’ refers to the materials that go into creating an ‘event,’ not to the object of a wish.3Gabriel Lester is interested in the materiality of the cinematic imaginary and thus creates a cinematic heterotopia, with for example works turning the complementary function of the soundtrack into an autonomous affair, as in Music for Riots and Fights (2005), or Kaufhaus incidentals (2013). In this last work, re-recorded soundtrack music written for thoughts in movies, as well as in Super Sargasso Sea, he brings the imaginary and the real together in an unusual material combination. Super Sargasso Sea refers to the dimension in which things get lost by teleportation, a theory of Charles Hoy Fort, who didn’t believe in it himself, but wished to present a plausible theory. Through the piece is a play for the mind, sparking the audiences’ imagination, because the performance doesn’t involve actors. The set, various cinematic techniques, sound, and light effects, the 30-minute play becomes a dreamscape for the subconscious with sophisticated variations of tensions, suspense, and drama. Lester delves his audience into an almost surrealist dérèglement of the senses, all the while suggesting a focus on ‘other’ dimensions. Super Sargasso Sea shares Robert Smithson’s interest in what he called ‘mixed’ cultural sites, evoking the vastness of time, like for example in science fiction writing, ‘a sense of extreme past and future.’
Lester is interested in the establishment and then undermining of plausible space and image, as becomes clear in his series of installations The
Night of the 22nd/23rd/24th. The installations deal with an essential disorientation, paradoxically induced by voyeurism because the scenery is distanced in a box with lattice walls. The lattice frustrates the viewers desire to grasp the whole scene, but its construction as a shutter draws the gaze and suggests a perspective, in the cinematographic sense, creating a motion picture from still images. The Night of … creates its own time-lapse. The piece accords time to an image, not only through the way it is made but also through the way it presents itself to the viewer. In order to see parts of the scene inside the box, we have to wander around it, and we tend to start running to see more or trying to see the whole scene. We, the audience, are hysterics becoming the filming machine, as the installation beguiles us into an idiotic pace, to see something like a film developing out of one 3D still or a tableau. Each version of the installation shows a veristic scene, a moment frozen in time, a moment when something has happened, is happening or is about to happen: a chair up in the air, an office cleaned out, an abandoned bedroom. Together the successive scenes seem to suggest a narrative, referring to a specific line of dialogue familiar from film noir and crime movies: ‘Where were you on the night of the …?’
Lester’s tableaus in the series The Night of… take the form of an aggressive stilling. Our desire to halt the movement and to grasp the essence of the image—an essence, which Roland Barthes located in the film still— is inevitably linked to the cinematic experience. Marcel Broodthaers’ film Un voyage en Mer du Nord (1973) has a still image as its subject: a painting of an unknown nineteenth-century amateur-artist with the same title. Broodthaers knew that since film restored something of the pre-photographic conditions of looking, we have become ‘aware’ of the fact that images indeed really can stand still.4 Barthes defined the tableau as ‘a pure cut-out segment with clearly defined edges, irreversible and incorruptible.’5 He refers further to Brechtian epic theater in which the uncovering instead of the representing of conditions—in other words, alienation—is fundamental, and this is brought about by interruption, through the sudden presence of a ‘stranger.’ Rey Chow describes the phenomenon fundamental to the principle of alienation (Verfremdung) in Brecht’s theater as the appearance to the scene of the stranger who transforms its dynamics into an astonishing sight, ‘with bits and pieces of visual information caught as though they were frozen in a still photograph or tableau.’6 Verfremdung or the art of ‘making strange’ as the means to disrupt established habits and refresh perceptibility of the world, ‘to increase the length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged,’7 is key to Lester’s The Night of… series, but also in some of his recent film-work , such as, The Secret Life of Cities. In this work, the audience is forced again in a voyeuristic position, as the camera is peeping through openings in the bushes of public parks or other urban greenery, to only grasp fragments of cityscapes of different cities in the world, which appear to be connected by a vast and endless nature.
Though Lester focuses on the discontinuities in our perception, on gaps and absences, surprises and alternative positions, he shares the surrealist’s ‘theatricalization’ of presentation. His installations, and this can also be a film-projection in an exhibition space, extend the ‘poetics of the marvelous’ into actual space, thereby transforming a mundane setting into a wondrous one. The installations Big Bang (2007) and Big Bang Bang (2013) combine two hallowed surrealist concepts, le merveilleux and the aforementioned dérèglement. He collates awestruck wonder and a visual and aesthetic statement of a kind. Big Bang spatializes the image of an expanding universe as a series of walls through which the audience walks, a 3D experience through the stills of an animation. Though the idea of the Big Bang is something impossible to grasp, still we try to imagine it—visually. The walls of the second version, called Big Bang Bang are made of the same material as the semi-translucent walls of the museum in Nanjing (China) that hosts the installation, allowing the galleries to suffuse with daylight. Lester’s installation melts into the spatial construction, creating a sort of ‘architectural imaginary.’ The porous boundaries of art and architecture converge in shaping an experience, and the experience in this second version of Lester’s installation is that of a movie played backwards, as if the audience is soaked into a wonderful but sinisterly erotic trip of which the end is invisible. The audience as shadowy actors recedes into the coulisses of the scene of a play, and only on their way back they discover the stages of the expanding explosion. Its materiality invokes melting sugar, or ice, and the silhouettes moving through the semi-transparent walls allow a suggestion of Asian shadow play.
Since Gabriel Lester lives part-time in Shanghai, he is more and more aware of the increasing interconnected texture of the virtual and the real, moreover since China knows the tradition since centuries to re-create the encounter with nature as sceneries. Lester’s installations Night of The…, and Big Bang… look as scenery, sometimes even decors, but just as in How to Act, or Super Sargasso Sea, there are no actors. Revealing the ‘machinery’ of magic, or to show how things work, while
they are being shown, installs a distance that questions the strategies of the experience industry, while at the same time being fascinated by those very techniques that in fact stem from artistic research, art is a form of production for Lester—not a mystery. Nevertheless, the artist bets on our memory of lived spaces and states of mind. The installations require relational engagement from viewers and empathy with spatial forms. Mnemonic narratives condense in space, capturing and ‘architecting’ temporality and memory.
Perhaps the installation that most obviously ‘lays bare the device’ is Cousins, which Lester conceived for the Lithuanian and Cyprian pavilion at the 55th Venice Biennial. The idea came out of a desire for walls that were lacking in the big sports hall hosting the Pavilion. In her text Photography’s Discursive Places, Rosalind Krauss coined the term ‘exhibitionality’ as the fundamental characteristic of the physical vehicle of the exhibition: the continuous surface of the gallery wall, structured solely for the display of art. The ‘gallery wall became the signifier of inclusion and, thus, can be seen as constituting in itself a representation of what could be called exhibitionality, or that which was developing as the crucial medium of exchange between patrons and artists within the changing structure of art in the nineteenth century.’8 She wrote this text in a reflexion about aesthetic discourse from the nineteenth century on, developing increasingly around what would be called the space of the exhibition, constituted in part by the wall. But what happens when the gallery wall becomes the artistic display in itself. On an empty sports terrain, different gallery walls are collected that come from different exhibition spaces carrying their own specific exhibition histories. Cousins, as Lester called the installation, forms loose labyrinthine scenery of gallery walls from different European art institutions. The position of the walls, somehow also a reaction to the lines drawn on the sports terrain used for different types of games, changes during the exhibition according to an algorithm. Cousins could be seen as the artist’s tribute to the formal legacy and digested strategy of minimal art, and is entangled with a critical rereading of the modernist doctrine through the use of objects, references, materials, and shapes taken out of their utilitarian context and fuelled with new values. With this installation, Lester challenges the imaginative forms of building typical for museum galleries, normally tasting the imagistic power of architecture, by leaving exhibition walls on their own, solitary and freed from their tasks to display arts. Cousins negotiates art’s autonomy and use, refutes nostalgia and unmasks the dangers lingering within utopias of design with a penchant for totality. The walls discover themselves being the display, embodying art and architecture at once, collaborating in an almost subjectified play of hide-and-seek with programmed events, as pieces on a chessboard.
Lester’s work deals with whether the desires we feel as a society are artificially invoked. In the era of ‘digital hyper-reproducibility’ (Rancière), the value of the object is replaced by the value of the exposition, be it in the exhibition space, in the megastore or in the dematerialized territories of image. It is interesting to note that before the development of photography, the representation of space was always subjective, narrated, and thus fictionalized through painting or writing. Lester’s work connects to this tradition and involves a relationship to public space, in the Ancient Greek inception of the term. His works provide a social and political territory that can be appropriated both physically and mentally, by inviting the potential production of narratives.
1 See more at: www.enotes.com/shakespeare-quotes/we-such-stuff-dreams-made#sthash.drQi1PGj.dpuf
2 Towers, palaces, and temples, the Globe Theater, the Earth—all will crumble and dissolve, leaving not even a wisp of cloud (a ‘rack’) behind. Prospero’s ‘pageant’ is the innermost Chinese box: a play within a play (The Tempest) within a play (the so-called ‘real’ world), See more at: www.enotes.com/shakespeare-quotes/we-such-stuff-dreams-made#sthash.drQi1PGj.dpuf
3 See more at: www.enotes.com/shakespeare-quotes/we-such-stuff-dreams-made#sthash.drQi1PGj.dpuf
4 Images have actually always been in movement (Rubens’ altar pieces offer a visual matrix for the cinema of the spectacle). By travelling with the camera over the painted surface of the abovementioned marine painting, Broodthaers frustrates our desire to stop the movement and to grasp the ‘essence’ in a Barthian sense. By means of the camera’s active involvement, which only registers its own movement, Broodthaers indefinitely postpones the possibility of grasping the image.
5 Barthes, Roland, “Diderot, Brecht, Eisenstein,” Image/Music/Text, transl. Stephen Heath, New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1977, p. 173
6 Victor Shklovsky, ‘Art as Technique,’ Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays, L. Lemon and M.J. Reis eds, (Lincoln,NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1965), p. 12
7 Victor Shklovsky, ‘Art as Technique,’ Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays, translated and with an introduction by L. Lemon and M.J. Reis (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1965), p. 12
8 Rosalind Krauss, ‘Photography’s Discursive Space,’ in The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England, 1985, p. 133