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Experiencing The White Wide Space:
Melanie Counsell's Interventions in The Gallery Space
 
Irene Amore
ISSN 1127-4883     BTA - Telematic Bulletin of Art, August 18th 2001, n. 276
http://www.bta.it/txt/a0/02/en/bta00276.html
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In January 1995 Melanie Counsell exhibited a new untitled work at the Matt's Gallery. It was her second intervention in such a leading venue, and it was endorsed by the critics as a distinct and particularly well-articulated development of the artist's practice 1. It also positioned Melanie Counsell clearly within the artistic bias engaging in "minimal interventions" 2 in a gallery space: an area I am particularly interested in, both because of my former working involvement in art galleries, and because of the theoretical issues that such practices raise, particularly relevant in curatorial studies.

In this paper I will mainly explore Melanie Counsell's interventions in the gallery space (rather than in public areas) towards a final analysis in details of her two installations for Matt's Gallery 3. This investigation will allow me to reflect over some fundamental issues related not only to the artist's specific practice, which I find very captivating, but also to our culture of representation and display, which is the contemporary curator's "space" of work 4.

Melanie Counsell has always adopted installation as her main media, interacting with either public spaces such as hospitals, factories, cinemas 5, and art galleries (including institutional spaces such as the Whitechapel Art Gallery). In this respect Melanie Counsell's work is almost exclusively site-specific 6, beyond the fact that all "installations" are supposed to refer to the space where they are located 7. Her interventions, in fact, don't start from an object but from a particular site that she inhabits and that becomes "her" object, her stage and her laboratory. Therefore, the site's memories and its architectural texture revolve to become the active and activated artwork itself, where production and display are in open dialogue. Rather than the veiled background or the silent support of the work, the space is together the receptive and reactive element of the work.

The possibility given to Melanie Counsell of working at Matt's Gallery twice was quite unique. Indeed her approach couldn't find a better container than this venue. Founded by the artist Robin Klassnik in 1979, the venue is the very first of all artist-led independent initiatives that have characterized the British art scene from the late 80s. The gallery, set up firstly in the artist's studio, has always been a place « in which work can be tested and modified by the artist » 8, and has been compared to a "factory" operating on the basis of collaborative processes 9. For Klassnik, « the interesting thing is the relationship between the artist and the container, the artist operating within the space » 10.

Generally, the artists' exploration of the gallery space, of its architectural details and its contradictory functions between the "private" and the "public" spheres has a long history and has produced a large number of experiments, "gestures" as Brian O'Doherty called them 11. In England, this trend has been underpinned by a traditional interest in sculpture and therefore in volumes, weights and in the relationship between the casted figure and its "pedestal" or the space around. Such issues were readdressed during the 60s and the 70s by more radical attitudes towards the traditional genres and towards the establishment, including the institutional artworld and its "structures". An essential interpretation of this historical mode was carried out by Brian O'Doherty and firstly published in 1976 and then in 1986 with the title Inside the White Cube: the Ideology of the Gallery Space.

Then, after a period of relative silence, this interest revived by the end of the 80s in connection with the rise of a new generation of English artists, better known (and often misread) under the label of yBa. Melanie Counsell, born 1964, belongs cronologically to the generation of the yBas, and although not implicated in the Saatchi's nor in the Sensational's adventures, she has been included in this eclectic trend 12 because of her age, her activity in a particular contemporary "frame", and the defect of generalisation that affects "contemporary British art". Her practice is not concerned with the «pop, graphics and advertising» 13 mode nor with the postmodern global glamour addressed by many of her colleagues. Instead it aims to explore the notions of "presence/absence", "processes/memories", which refers more directly to a 60s-70s conceptual legacy and is still present in other of her contemporaries, including Ceal Floyer, John Frankland, Anya Gallaccio, and Bethan Huws.

Melanie Counsell's work resides in an area where the general notion of "space" is enacted in the hiatus between presence and absence, between participation and distance, between stage and occurrence. The space is therefore experienced as a process in which the "sensient subject" 14, as we will see, is simultaneously called up and kept remote. The choice of the basement of the Slade School for her debut in 1988 suggests not only an interest for the uneasy, "hidden", and "at the edges" nature of a site, but also for the lapse between the privately isolated and the publicly functional space. This basement, in fact, half roofed, housed the drainage system of the building. Its seclusion was interrupted by the actual presence of the public invited to the degree show, whilst its function was disrupted by the artist's intervention to re-enact a flooding. A similar shift in the order of things is to be found in most of Melanie Counsell's works, making their reading ambivalent and elusive.

Indeed in Melanie Counsell's practice there is a preference for the kind of space that is not-quite a public area and not-quite a white cube gallery. When in a public space, she informs the already metaphorically complex context of the white cube gallery's "mystique". Her work becomes, therefore, an ambiguous compromise between a «unique chamber of aesthetics» 15 and a real location.

In her intervention at the Tooting Bec Psychiatric Hospital in 1989 the wet curtains were blocking the view of a separate and secret room, commenting not only on the difficulties in communicating with mental illness 16, but also on the remoteness of the room from the viewer. With a more puzzling approach to the actual qualities of the site, at the Biennal of Sydney in 1992 the artist occupied the disused room of a warehouse, including two lift shafts, and built a glass wall that blocked the entrance to the space; this glass panel was then punctured by drilled holes, as a means of restricted communication and distinctive separation.

When in a white cube gallery, as according to the most traditional rules, it seems that a very similar mistifying tendency occurs, and a parallel attitude towards the viewer is assumed.

Again the beholders are invited by the artist to participate to an experience rather different from that of painting, as she declares 17; however, they are kept at a sort of safety distance from the work, which still holds an enigmatic aura as in a return to the classical canons of Western representation. Viewers cannot touch, nor move freely around the installations: they can only experience the sounds produced by the elements, the light as defined and constructed by the artist, the view over the alterations that are happening independently in a specific place during a specific time with the use of specific materials. Viewers are, therefore, held back, forced in a role of passive spectators.
A typical example of this "act of distance" is the installation at the Galerie Jennifer Flay in Paris dated 1992. Here «A pool occupies the gallery floor space leaving a limited access. Concrete support beams cross the ceiling and run down both walls. Into this a wooden frame with eight panels of glass is fitted. The pool contains water to which lime has been added. Daylight provides illumination from the gallery windows at the rear.» 18

Again the artist locates devices (in particular, the pool and the glass panels) that obstruct the full access of the gallery space, and partially interfere with the clear vision of the space. Here is evident what Patricia Falguières calls the "frontality" of Melanie Counsell's work, for the way she draws "fields of visions", almost like a "perspectivist" 19. In a more recent work presented in 1999 at the Galerie Jennifer Flay, an unaccessible wooden stairway covered with Masonite occupied a whole room, cleverly enlightened so that to appear flat almost like a painting. This specific approach, playing around the illusionism of representation, brings to what has been called a «theatrical arrangement of real space» 20. However, the idea of re-presenting is as much implied and forced within certain pre-constructed structures as it is broken apart by the relation/reaction of the elements set in motion: a margin is left to the unpredictable, such as in the corrosion of the container with water and lime at the Galerie Jennifer Flay, or the stains of grease slowly secreted on the netting at the Whitechapel Gallery (1990, at Walter Phillips Gallery in Banff in 1991). The process of these reactions, which are internal to the work, affects their perception, and their communication to the viewers in unexpected ways. The beholder is finally included in the work, and his perception is part of it 21.

Accordingly, the descriptions of Melanie Counsell's works are together very necessary and insufficient. The catalogue published in 1998 by Artangel and Matt's Gallery, whilst resuming the Melanie's main interventions until then, accompanies images with short descriptions of each piece. These descriptions define the main aspects of the artist's interventions, the way certain objects are located, the way the light and sound purposefully interact in the space, the way certain changes have occurred; however, they cannot account for the mutable movements provoked nor substitute the viewers' experience of the space.

Finally, if we refer to Nick Kaye's studies on "site-specific art" and to his quotes from de Certeau, it could be said here that whilst the work is segregated to its own ordered "place", it still holds the living and unstable quality of a "site" 22.

In this context, the use of materials such as curtains, nets and glass becomes vital in their double function: the glass, in particular, is the perfect means to protect, disguise and together communicate the work and its processes. Significantly water is Melanie Counsell's favourite element. Water discloses and conceals, mirrors and isolates, displays and hides. Its reflective nature is projected onto the surroundings and viceversa, in a dialogue with the space that fascinates and confounds the viewer. The re-presentation becomes a uninterrupted performance, in which the water with its fluid (in)consistency together with the other elements' organic nature brings physical transformations. At the Gallery Jennifer Flay the water together nurtures the work and corrodes, causing premature rusting. At the Whitechapel surgical syringes slowly expell grease to mark the net underneath. This 'organic' texture, enhanced by the compulsory distance imposed to the viewers, provokes a sort of sensuality, and the enactment of a symbolic drama between immobility and transformation.

Melanie Counsell's intervention at Matt's Gallery in 1995 does not resort to the use of water, and allows the viewers to enter the gallery space. Such a new approach deserves a closer consideration, also in relation to the first intervention of the artist in the same venue.

The first intervention in the neutral space of this gallery resulted in a series of gestures aimed at exploring the state and symbolic resonance of the space. Thus, the floor was stripped away from the layers of paint it had, in a way that remembers similar interventions on the gallery floors enacted by Bethan Huws.

Not by chance, in fact, the two artists exhibited together at the Anthony Reynolds gallery in 1988, only one year before Melanie Counsell's show at Matt's. In that occasion Melanie Counsell's «more conventionally apprehensible sculpture» 23 was surrounded by the minimal alterations introduced by Bethan Huws: the installation of a grey woollen carpet, fitted to extend partially into Counsell's area of display, some changes applied to the gallery's skylight, and the removal of the artificial lighting track. So minimal were these gestures to become difficult to translate 24.

In both artists the interest for the experience of a space is supported by a similar concern for issues of absence and presence, and for the way perception changes as the result of slight alterations. However, the rigorous dematerialization of Bethan Huws' works reflects a diminished interest in the organisation of the space, and an increased attention to the subtle ontological aspects of perception, towards the re-enactment of the original "real" space. Therefore, her interventions at the Riverside Studios (1989), at the Kunsthalle in Bern (1990), and at Luis Campana Gallery in Frankfurt (1991), where she generally constructed customised floors, completely denied representation and metaphors 25 and showed a faith in the fragmented but stable consistence of the real. In a way for Bethan Huws there is no distinction between "spaces" and "places".

Melanie Counsell's work is less conceptually rigorous, more sensual and ambiguous. It often invokes metaphors and analogies. As we saw before, there is here an interest for the re-presentation of perceptions in the gallery space, as well as for the perceptions themselves. When Bethan Huws stripped away the floor of her studio at the Royal College of Art in 1988 it was to find the "real" floor; not simply to remove layers, but to "add" 26 reality to her gestures. With Melanie Counsell the gesture of stripping away the floor's layers is intended to find the "real", that is however perceived as a staged act, with a sense of nostalgia passed on to the work. Bethan Huws trusts in the artist's alchemical skills and in its capacity to make/create beyond represention. Melanie Counsell is fully aware of the dramatic ambiguity that the artist faces between representation and presentation.

The first installation of Melanie Counsell at Matt's presents not only an intervention in the floor, but, typically, a "performance" held behind the folded floral curtains of an unusual "theatre": here the water dripped from a row of tubes over a rolled carpet and then seeped into the gallery floor. Metaphors grew from the installation, complicating the performance of the space with associations and correspondences, including the artist's memory of «working at an institution where sensory evidence of lost control seeped out of every room» 27. Here we can trace a nostalgic attempt to rebalance the lapse between the actual perceptual event, its staging in the gallery, and its undefined resonances.

The second installation at Matt's differs from the first (and from other works) as it concentrates on the character of "spectacle" peculiar to a gallery, and invoked in the performed space. This work is so described: «The original height of the gallery has been lowered. A false ceiling of dense industrial fibreboards reduces the height by almost a third. The ceiling stretches from the entrance towards the series of windows which run along the rear wall of the gallery. The structure does not meet the windows. Leaving a part of the original ceiling visible and unaltered, a narrow border exists between the windows and the depth of the structure is revealed. This face of the structure parallel to the windows is faced with black perspex. The two concrete pillars which inhabit the gallery have been sandblasted.» 28.

Here the investigation of the relationship between the inside and the outside of the gallery leads back to the work of another artist from the Matt's Gallery's portfolio: Richard Wilson's «She came in through the bathroom window» (1989).

This installation consisted of a window built inside the gallery, within a structure whose walls frame the view of the exterior. In both this work and Melanie Counsell's second intervention there is a very similar attention to the ambiguous perception of the space in the mirroring of inside and outside. However, whilst the Richard Wilson's structure created an obstacle for the visitors entering the gallery, Counsell's alterations for the first time do not obstruct the viewer's access. It's true that in Wilson as much as in Counsell, the same distance of the viewer from the work is demanded, to be then taken aside when the visitor is asked to "experience" the space and its objects. However, in Richard Wilson there is a more traditional understanding of the artwork's authonomy and a quite romantic return to the artist producing a second positive nature, rather than imitating and reproducing it 29.

In Melanie Counsell the act of making does not trust the full control over (and the authonomy of) the artwork, and instead leaves the elements (including the viewers) react according to their own variable moods.

Finally, the constructive hand of Richard Wilson, and its monumental masculine trait, has a more formal impact on the gallery space, with a detailed attention to angles, viewpoints, structures cleverly proportioned to enhance certain effects The intervention of Melanie Counsell pays attention to the already existing "spectacle" aspect of a gallery space, rather than to the "spectacular" effects activated.
In particular in the second intervention at Matt's Gallery, the closeness of her work to the architectural texture of the gallery liberates it from any previous metaphors, and allows the investigation of the "space" on its own. Here the water does not appear, and it is the natural light that acts, as a result of the changes applied to the ceiling, and the black perspex reflecting the landscape outside. The almost claustrophobic interior, whose acoustic quality is also altered by the application of a low ceiling, is the absent work. Its presence passes to the experience of the viewer walking in the space. The real ceiling, being absent, abruptly reveals itself through the shallow reflections of the urban landscape outside onto the perspex. The gallery is and is not a fake. It really exists in the space between closure and disclosure, like the stage of a representation enacted by the artist and the beholders.

I believe that this is one of the more (if not the most) challenging works of Melanie Counsell in a gallery. Here the lapse between representation and presentation, between artificial and organic, between ordered place and practiced space, finally between absent and present is more directly identified and experienced in the mercurial relationship between the space, the artist and the viewer. The theoretical implications of such a work raise more issues than formulate solutions, and in doing so require our senses to vigilate, and our brain to "exercise". It is an essential experience to bear in mind in curatorial approaches, where the notion of display and the beholder's viewpoint complicate the already labyrinthine relationship between the artist and the artwork.

It must be said that Melanie Counsell as well as all artists from her generation, brought up in the postmodern realm of media obsession, simulacra and pastiches, is particularly able to explore and question the space she and we inhabit without defining it. On one side such an attitude extends our knowledge and breaks down all boundaries to our experience, on the other side it moves at an edge where it risks getting lost in its own representations and reflections, and return to the artwork's incommensurable distance. It is a difficult balance to keep. However, it is what makes Melanie Counsell's works so captivating and the curatorial work so thought-provoking.





NOTES

1 See Kyriacou S. (1995) Melanie Counsell, in " Art Monthly ", n. 184, p. 31: « This project benefited from the lack of overt associations encountered in some of Counsell's earlier work, the sense of succint interaction with the bare realities creating a more focused and ultimately richer experience ».

2 Green, David (1997) Minimal Interventions, in " Contemporary Visual Arts ", n. 17, pp. 18-25. In this article the author explores the installation work of several British artists (Ceal Floyer, Freddie Contreras, Martin Creed, Gladstone Thompson, Melanie Counsell, Anya Gallaccio, and John Frankland) whose practice involves making minimal alterations to the architectural space of the gallery or site.

3 It is implicit that during this investigation I will bear in mind the differences inherent to the secluded and "neutral" context of a gallery, and to the historically and " politically " overloaded context of a public space. We will see that both contexts are tackled by the artist with a very similar attitude.

4 For the relevance of the notion of " display " in curatorial practice, and its link with the artists' interventions and installations in the gallery space see Barker, E. (1999) Contemporary Cultures of Display, New Haven & London: Yale University Press, pp. 13-20.

5 In particular, I would like to remember here Melanie Counsell's work at the the Tooting Bec Psychiatric Hospital in London, in 1989, at the BSR Factory in Derry for the TSWA Four Cities Project in 1990, and at the Coronet Cinema in London, in 1993.

6 With the exception of her sculptures.

7 A number of surveys has been carried out on the floating genre of installation art, with the aim to analytically study some of the common aspects. See Reiss, Julie H., (2000) From Margin to Centre: the Spaces of Installation Art, Cambridge, p. xiii: "There is always a reciprocal relationship of some kind between the viewer and the work, the work and the space, and the space and the viewer. One could argue that these qualities define many artistic practices. To refine the definition further, therefore, one might add that in creating an installation, the artist treats an entire indoor space (large enough for people to enter) as a single situation, rather than as a gallery for displaying separate works [...] Although the term "Installation art" has become widely used, it is still relatively nonspecific. It refers to a wide range of artistic practices [...] Site specificity, institutional critique, temporality, and ephemerality are issues shared by many practitioners of these genres."
See Green, D. (1997) pp. 20-1: "installation comprises that which has not autonomous existence as object or artifact and is only fully realised in its existence with regard to the actual space in which it is placed - and of which it may, and often does, become physically a part. In a most fundamental sense, therefore, installation is always site-specific." See de Oliveira, N., Oxley, N., Petry, M., eds (1994) Installation Art, London: Thames and Hudson Ltd, p. 7: « The prominence of installations in specific non-art sites also continues to figure among the concerns of installation artists. The activation of the place, or context, of artistic intervention suggests a localized, highly specific reading of the work, and is concerned not only with art and its boundaries, but with the continual rapprochement, or even fusion, of art and life. Installation must therefore also represent the artist's desire to extend the area of practice from the studio to the public space. ». See finally Guyton, Marjorie Allthorpe (1990), Seven Obsessions, in " Artforum International ", vol. 29, p.183: « Installation proper is obsessive and possessive of the space it claims with authority or inhabits with impunity, and of its power to seduce or repel the spectator. » Here the exhibition Seven Obsessions held at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1990, with the participation of Melanie Counsell, is criticised for its "impotence".

8 Kastner, J. (1995) 'Matt's Gallery', in Art & Design, vol. 10, n. 5/6, pp. 29-31.

9 Morrissey, S. (1999) 'Twenty Years of Matt's Gallery', in Contemporary Visual Arts, n. 24, pp. 26-29: "But the one thing that seems to define it against other spaces even now is that it functions more like a factory than a showroom. You could even say that in the present context of public spaces Matt's is run inside out: it is much more concerned with actually producing the work than it is with any educative rhetoric about taking art to the people".

10 Kastner, J. (1995) p. 33. Amongst the artists who worked at Matt's, Tony Bevan, Joel Fisher, Lucy Gunning, Susan Hiller, Jaroslaw Kozlowski, Amikam Toren, Richard Wilson.

11 O'Doherty, B. (1996 [1980]) The Gallery as a Gesture, in Greenberg, R., Ferguson, B.W., Nairne, S., eds., Thinking about Exhibition, London: Routledge, pp. 320-340.

12 See Troncy, E. (1992) 'London Calling: intimacy and chaos in contemporary British art', in Flash Art International, n. 165, p. 86-9.

13 This wording, as well as the next one in diverted commas is taken from Murphy, B. (..) 'Pictura Britannica: Scenes, Fictions and Constructions in Contemporary British Art',in ed. by Murphy, B. (1997) Pictura Britannica: art from Britain, Sydney, Museum of Contemporary Art..

14 Bush, K. (1989) 'Take Three: Fiona Rae, Ian Davenport, Melanie Counsell', in Artscribe, n. 80, p. 58.

15 O'Doherty, B. (1986) Inside the White Cube Gallery: The Ideology of the Gallery Space, Santa Monica: Lapis Press, p. 14: « The ideal gallery subtracts from the artwork all cues that interfere with the fact that it is 'art'. The work is isolated from everything that would detract from its own evaluation of itself Some of the sanctity of the church, the formality of the courtroom, the mystique of the experimental laboratory joins with chic design to produce a unique chamber of esthetics. »

16 See Counsell, M. (1991) TSWA Four Cities Project, in " Circa ", n. 55, p. 29: « In the hospital installation a huge bed curtain of public proportions excludes the spectator, commenting perhaps on our inability to communicate our feelings or at our own shame and embarrassment rather than that of the individuals suffering mental illness. »

17 See quote in Weil, B. (1992) Jennifer Flay Gallery, in Flash Art International, no. 165, p. 120: « I am concerned with the spectator's physical engagement with the work, which is fundamentally different to one's engagement with a painting. »

18 From Counsell, M., (1998) Catalogue, London: Artangel + Matt's Gallery, p. 28

19 Falguières, P. (1998) Nothing Beyond, in " Counsell ", M., Catalogue, pp. 65-66: « Since 1989, Counsell's interventions in various spaces have involved the rigorous organising and circumscibing of a field of vision [...] Whilst her artistic generation has its share of 'constructors', Melanie Counsell's approach to constructing is a singular one: she marks out a section, circumscribes a field of vision, traces its divisions, reveals them, reinforces them when they already effectively organise the chosen space. The gesture is a graphic one [...] The tracings in Melanie Counsell's work cannot but evoke the work of the perspectivist. »

20 Ardenne, P. (2000) 'Melanie Counsell: Galerie Jennifer Flay', in Art Press, n. 254, p. 86.

21 In his Art and Objecthood, Michael Fried celebrated Modernist art against minimal art. His study, however, has been often mentioned for clarifying certain aspects of minimal art and installation art. In particular, he suggested that « the experience of literalist [minimal] art is of an object in a situation - one that, virtually by definition, includes the beholder ». He therefore, highlighted the theatrical and performative aspects of minimalism, produced by the transitory and ephemeral act of viewing in the gallery. See Fried, M. (1968) Art and Objecthood, in Battock, G., ed., Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology, New York: E.P. Dutton, pp. 116-47 (above quote p. 125).

22 See Kaye, N. (2000) Site-specific Art. Performance, Place and Documentation, London: Routledge. N. Kaye reconsiders de Certeau's reflections on the relationship between place and space, p. 4: « de Certeau reads " place " as an ordered and ordering system realised in " spatial practices " ». Also quotes from de Certeau, M. (1984) The Practice of Everyday Life, Berkeley, Cal.: University of California Press, p. 117: « in relation to place, space is like the word when it is spoken, that is, when it is caught in the ambiguity of an actualization, transformed into a term dependent upon many different conventions, situated as the act of a present (or of a time), and modified by the transformations caused by successive contexts. In contradistinction to the place, it has thus none of the univocity or stability of a 'proper'.»

23 Archer, M. (1988) Bethan Huws, in " Artscribe ", n. 72, p. 53.

24 See Archer, M. (1988), p. 53: « This was a difficult work. That it pleased and impressed, was skilful, expressive, well-observed, conceptually rigorous, delicate, sensuous, generous is unquestionable. But its impact was so much greater than these epithets imply because the disquiet one felt in recognising, isolating and appreciating such qualities became so much a part of one's experience of them. »

25 See Gillick, L. (1992) Making Work and Turning Your Back on It, in " Parkett ", n. 32, pp. 112-115

26 Gillick, L. (1992) p. 113.

27 This memory refers to p. 42. This memory seems to refer to Melanie Counsell's experience at the Tooting Bec Pshychiatric Hospital in May/June 1989.

28 Counsell, M., (1998) Catalogue, p. 50

29 See Newman, M. (1989) 'From the Fire to the Light: On Richard Wilson's Installations', in Richard Wilson, London, Oxford, Bristol: Matt's Gallery - Museum of Modern Art Oxford - Arnolfini Bristol, pp. 8-9: "Just as he salvages certain production processes, so Richard Wilson salvages the radical possibility of autonomy from the ideology of art for art's sake which Modernism became in Clement Greenberg's critical writings. The potential for transformation towards real authonomy - freedom and intrinsic value - in society is recalled in autonomous works of art which contain the sedimentation of social and historical processes of work. The failure of technologically developed society to achieve the freedom and happiness which it promised, and continues to promise, is discerned in the elegiac character of some of Richard Wilson's installations, which recall both the heroic, promethian moment of capitalist development with its great projects of 'steam and speed', or railway and bridge-building, and the exploitation and repression of happiness and fulfilment it brought in its wake."


 
 

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