Pallas Heights, 29 Sean Tracey House, Dublin
Ready-made darkness: Notes on Cosmic Annihilator
by Sarah Pierce
We believe that most of the matter in the universe is dark, i.e. cannot be detected from the light which it emits (or fails to emit). This is “stuff” which cannot be seen directly–so what makes us think that it exists at all?
There never was or will be a self-present beholder to whom a world is transparently evident.
Nothing, for us, can fill the place of undiminished brightness except the unconscious dark; nothing that of what once we might have been, except the dream that we had never been born.
Cosmic Annihilator is a large-scale installation that occupies two floors of an empty unit in a public housing block. Its components include a glass collage, a glass city, a bellows and doors. Yet, to describe it through these parts is to mistake Cosmic Annihilator for its sculptural elements, to privilege the physical over the phenomenological, the tangible over the unseen.
Cosmic Annihilator is darkness. What is darkness? Usually described as absence of light, darkness is not emptiness. It is not lack. In 1810, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe described an experiment in vision where an observer would look for a short time at a small hole of light shining in a dark room: The hole being then closed, let him look towards the darkest part of the room; a circular image will now be seen to float before him. The middle of the circle will appear bright, colourless, or somewhat yellow, but the border will appear red …No sooner, however is the whole circle red than the edge begins to be blue, and the blue gradually encroaches inwards on the red. 1
Without light there is vision. There is colour and depth. Goethe’s experiment introduces a notion of subjectivity, where what is seen is not directly observable in the room. It is entirely dependent on the ‘subjective vision’ of an observer. Goethe concludes there are colours and shapes that belong entirely to the body and have no direct object correlation at the time they are seen. 2
Throughout Cosmic Annihilator, Cullen directs his observer through periods of extreme darkness, preceded by moments of intense light. This action begins from the moment visitors step into the flat from outside. Playing with the eye’s inability to adjust quickly after exposure to light, Cullen shrouds the flat’s entryway with black curtains that close-off the space to the outside. This causes immediate disorientation. The impulse is to move forward, to seek light and recover one’s vision. In doing so we move deeper into the flat.
Light’s momentary illusion
As radiant things give up their magic claims, renounce the power with which the subject invested in them and hoped with their help himself to wield, they become transformed into promises of a happiness cured of dominion over nature.
In the grips of darkness there is a small room. The density of the space, made more so through layers of black paint, induces a claustrophobia that renders the room seamless. There are no corners, no boundaries, only depth. The room’s floor and walls slant inward to a vanishing point in the centre of a large illuminated rectangle. The bright surface reads as a window. This is the first reference offered by Cullen to a world outside. The light source however, is in the wall. Our vision restored, our eyes settle upon shards of glass covering the rectangle’s surface. This encounter with light serves as Cosmic Annihilator’s prologue. It foregrounds an interplay between inside and outside that will continue to throughout the installation.
This first room is set up like a small stage, and from here we move from flat frontal perspective to the convex contortions of a third dimension. The installation progressively aligns our bodies with technologies that refer to photography and cinema. Each of these of course has its correlative in the eye. However, it is not the camera’s mechanical eye that Cosmic Annihilator brings into play, but rather the correspondence of mechanised sight to corporeal vision. The counterbalances between observation and perception, exterior imprint and interior impression in Cosmic Annihilator, always happen through a manoeuvring of vision. In order to see we must physically reposition and adapt. For example, at only one specific place in the installation is it possible to see outside the flat, but to do so involves perching on the stairs between the unit’s two floors, and looking through a massive bellows that blocks a window at the top of the stairs, and narrows in telescopic sections down to the fourth or fifth step. Upon balancing here, one’s gaze lines up with the bellows’ viewfinder. There are no visible landmarks to see, only bright light coming from the sky. The closer one leans into the lens, the more intensely the light outside extinguishes any peripheral vision of space inside. All that is visible in this moment is a perfect round globe of light.
Cosmic Annihilator is the obliteration of space through light’s momentary illusion. To continue upstairs it is necessary to squeeze past the bellows, after which there is a low passage. This is lit along the floor by small lights reminiscent of a cinema aisle. To enter one must crawl through the passage to the end where there is a cut-away section that makes a viewing point. On the other side an elaborate glass city emerges from the floor. The dimensions of the space render it out of reach in the distance. Like a crystal metropolis, it is stuck in time. It is a fantasy that we project ourselves into and can never be part of. The intricacy of its structure, its angular planes and reflective surfaces, forges a different illusion to the bellows’ ball of light. The glass city’s escapist dream comes to bear as pure science-fiction. This is not the world outside the window.
Dark matter and outer space
We are much less Greek than we believe. We are neither in the amphitheatre, nor on the stage, but in the panoptic machine, invested in its effects of power, which we bring to ourselves since we are part of is mechanism.
At the top of the stairs, Cosmic Annihilator’s final room lets us fully into the space. Here, we begin to understand the installation as a breakdown of spectacle that relies heavily on architecture. The flat’s interior doors hang from the ceiling in skewed planes. This lowers the ceiling but also throws it off kilter. Cullen identifies the interior structure of the flat as his initial frame of reference for making Cosmic Annihilator. This response involves a drastic restructuring of the flat inside, as well as a careful reorientation of its points of reference to the outside world. The three months Cullen spent in the space assembling the installation consisted largely of trial and error. Each alteration determined a new behaviour. The connection between behaviour and vision in Cosmic Annihilator
is predicated on the space’s architecture, which routes experience optically, but more, it stages consecutive events that in turn perform the installation. The reconfigured architecture wipes away any trac of the flat as domestic space. The past eliminated, Cosmic Annihilator is a void that
upon closer inspection fills with energy.The control of movement in Cosmic Annihilator might be read as overly regulated, yet it marks an alternate politics that is crucial to the installation. The rhetoric of freedom that surrounds much installation art, proposed formally as ‘relational aesthetics’, construes an experience that is democratic, open and undetermined; that favours the viewer’s subjective relationship to the work. Despite this ambition, participation is often the activity of a select few who feel comfortable taking on the involvement required to ‘activate’ the work. What anticipates openness actually antagonises those unfamiliar or unwilling to conform with the work’s interactive structures. 3
As Claire Bishop notes,
One could argue that in this context, project-based works-in-progress and artists-in-residence begin to dovetail with an “experience economy,” the marketing strategy that seeks to replace goods and services with scripted and staged personal experiences. Yet what the viewer is supposed to garner from such an “experience” of creativity, which is essentially institutionalized studio activity, is often unclear. 4
As a result, relational aesthetics devolve into vista, the accumulation of parts viewed from afar. Inside Cosmic Annihilator, there is no room to step back, to view it as a whole, or scrutinize it separately from the space it occupies. Despite the scale of the installation it defies spectacle. The visitor is the subject of the work, and we are unable to position ourselves outside it. In the place of ‘scripted and staged personal experiences’, this is actual commitment on the part of the viewer and artist to exact an exchange in city space that resists commodification.The context here is not pretense.
The site, christened Pallas Heights, represents two flats awaiting demolition. In approaching the top
floor address, one must climb an outer concrete stairwell. Occupancy is dwindling. The lived-in flats are detectable by single sets of lace curtains amidst rows of broken glass. Inside and outside are set up, not in opposition, but in exclusion of each other. There is no in-between. Inside the flat, our eyes fix on a circle of light hovering on the wall above the stairs. It is from the bellows. As we descend to leave Cosmic Annihilator, our bodies eclipse it, casting a shadow on the wall. It is a radical cancelling out. The light of the bellows—evidence of the world outside—is erased from the flat’s interior, but reappears out of vision on our backs when we depart. Light shifts from architecture to body, from vision to darkness. Over 70 years ago, Fritz Zwicky realised that clusters of galaxies consisted predominantly of matter in some nonluminous form. Since then, the search for Dark Matter has preoccupied the field of cosmology. This ‘unseen’ material makes up most of the universe, and is the key to understanding what holds it together. Perhaps in the social universe, Cosmic Annihilator is Dark Matter brought to light.
1. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Theory of Colours, trans. Charles Eastlake (1840; Cambridge, Mass., 1970), pp. 16 – 17 as noted in Jonathan Crary, Techniques of the Observer, (Cambridge, Mass., 1993) pp. 67.
2. For an expanded account of subjective vision in 19th century thought see Jonathan Crary, pp. 67 – 96.
3. See Claire Bishop, “Relational Aesthetics and Antagonism”, October, Vol. 110, Fall 2004
4 . Ibid, pp. 51
Essay taken from COSMIC ANNIHILATOR, publication 2004.