Xavier Cha‘s Untitled (2012), on view at 47 Canal through January 13th, positions four high definition video screens displaying a series of “screen tests” throughout the small gallery. These close-up video portraits present subjects alternately gazing at and away from the viewer, inviting the audience to scrutinize both the faces and backs of these heads. Jonathan Coward scores the videos with an intensified background noise reminiscent of an interior dizziness, a Tinnitus-like ringing in my ears– and I am hypnotized into a series of staring contests.
As these unwavering gazes reside, impermeable, within video, I am able to indulge in the guilty pleasure of a prolonged stare. The dissociation of looking into a camera lens emboldens the performer to stare directly “at” me, and the distance cultivated by the barrier of the screen allows me to examine the subjects without penalty. We are allowed the illusion of looking deeply at each other as our gazes never meet.
We stare when something is different, and to scrutinize difference risks a kind of dehumanization. Stares immobilize, trapping the performer in a frozen moment within the isolated space of the unmitigated gaze. But in Untitled, a kind of hidden immensity is at work– something that is barely perceptible behind the surface of this seemingly basic exchange.
A largely unpublicized fact about the exhibition (one that I learned third hand from a friend of a friend of one of the performers) is that Cha had her performers take Salvia and DMT – two naturally based drugs of varying hallucinogenic properties – before staring into the camera. This kind of secret information, this small and incidental knowledge, subtly yet radically changes the nature of our exchange. Cha does not mention in any of the narratives surrounding the exhibition that her performers are quietly undergoing intense interior experiences as they stare back at us. Though I feel that my focused gaze gives me access to some knowledge about the performers, our “contest” is characterized by private moments that I have no access to; that have nothing to do with me. Cha thus subverts the function of the stare as she affords her performers an agency that transforms them from art objects into engaged, radical subjects.
In the short email exchange that signifies their press release, 47 Canal notes that Cha’s digital stares suggest “the last breath of what we will know or remember” about the body, about subjectivity– and in this last sublime breath, the stark post-human landscape of video is tinged by a subtle interior trip on a natural drug. Technology is not the work’s focus, but an interface into a private experience of the physical body. Untitled presents the illusion of being a relational piece, one that might present an opportunity for a looking back and forth. But what we really see is a display of the performers’ intimacy with themselves within the texture of a technological broadcast. The almost imperceptible hint of these secrets prevents the viewer from truly knowing the subject of the work. Even within the illusion of hyper-proximity between subject and viewer that HD technology creates, the most precious intimacy cultivated by video is between the performer and his or her Self.
Xavier Cha is showing at 47 Canal through January 13.
47 Canal Street, 2nd Floor, New York NY 10002