An Art of Escape

An Art of Escape
Catalogue essay for Caroline McCarthy
Solo exhibition ‘Escape’ at Temple Bar Gallery, Dublin

An Art of Escape

Adam Phillips, the psychoanalyst, starts his book on the arts of escape with the story of an apparently unusual game of hide-and-seek. Twice a week a five year old girl would come to see him, stand in the middle of the room, cover her eyes, and say “Start looking!”

He comments that in her mind she is now quite clearly hiding. And growing impatient to be found – she reiterates that he should start looking. And of course he is at a loss, in a way, because what he can see is obviously not what this game of hide-and-seek is about. He says: “So what I have found – indeed, what I can’t help seeing: her in the middle of the room, hiding – is obviously not what she wants me to look for.”1

It is not clear how, or what, this little girl is trying to escape. The idea of escape is often linked to a sense of failure or disappointment – it is escaping from something – and the wish that things were otherwise than they are. It is about the wish to remove constraints and be transformed. But both the attraction and the fear of wishing that you were somewhere or someone else, is that you might forget where or who you are now.

Hide-and-seek is an embodiment of the play of desires in the desire to escape. The skill when hiding is to make it be interesting to be found rather than to try to avoid being found altogether. The game fails if the seeker gives up or the hider disappears. These are transgressions of the psychic economy of the game, where everyone is reassuringly found in the end. In a successful game of hide-and-seek everyone is found: no-one, in fact, escapes. The game demonstrates the contradictory desires to escape and to be safe: to change and remain the same.

This story of the little girl is, perhaps, a dream case for a psychoanalyst: a picture of the impenetrability of desire. But, in as much as desire is couched in terms of seeing and not seeing, it is also an illustration of the complexities of looking: of not knowing what successful seeing might be. In this story, being seen, and not seen, at the same time, is integral to an attempted escape; an attempt to be seen to be more than is apparent on the surface. This is an escape from expectations: an escape from the tyranny of the disenchanted idea that seeing is believing.

Caroline McCarthy is a conjurer. In her work nothing is quite as it seems. And the joy of looking at it is the joy of being ‘tricked’: of seeing things escape our expectations. Using the simplest of props and representational resources, she makes things appear and disappear before your very eyes. Like Adam Phillips staring at a five year old hiding in the most visible place possible, it is obvious what we can see but not so obvious what we are looking for.

In much of her early video work, Caroline McCarthy shows a scene in order to show what escapes it. A monitor frames a fixed view in which something is going on. But what is going on is not what you are looking for. In Greetings two monitors display two landscapes of picture-postcard mountains. Not much is happening. But then, irregularly, every fifteen seconds or so, a figure jumps up to interrupt the view: but she is so low down that only the top of her head scrapes into view at the bottom of the screen. The view of the mountain is transformed: we now see it as something that has been staged for its ability to be interrupted in this particular way. What was figure becomes ground; we are now looking out for the interruption of this view rather than at the view itself. We are looking in anticipation at what is not there; scrutinizing the bottom edge of the screen for a glimpse of the figure. It is this figure, almost entirely absent, that holds our attention.

The figure is acting out a dislocation from the landscape. The mountain is a synecdoche for the rural Irish idyll. This is a mythology that threatens to swamp those persons living within its efficacious power. The comic failure to be included in the landscape is an indication of what cannot be included within the ideology.

In Making Something Beautiful, we see the head and shoulders of the artist, apparently concentrating on playing the piano. We do not see a piano but we hear Beethoven’s Sonata No. 14. As we watch it becomes apparent that the artist is not playing the piano (or at least is not playing the piano that we are hearing). Despite not being able to see her hands, what we can see of the movement of her body does not seem to syncronize properly with the music.

One trick of the illusionist is to get things to disappear. The upshot is that when the curtain goes back and reveals that what was once there is no longer there, we are left looking at something that is not there. We are looking at an absence. If the assistant, say, has vanished, we are not interested in where he or she may have got to; what holds our attention is that the assistant is not where he or she should be: that he or she has escaped.

In this video the gestures and appearance of authentic performance are fake. The fiction leaves us with an absence which is disarming. There is a whole sub-genre of video art wherein the artist sets up a static camera and shoots themselves performing an authentic act. Typically, the lack of camera movement, editing, lighting and so on is an attempt to get us to concentrate on the content of the performance. Whether we love or hate it, we know what to look at. But it is not easy to know what we are looking at when we are looking at an absence: an escape from the constrictions of authentic certainty. 

Found Spirit is a video projection in which, once more, we see one thing but know that what we are looking at is something else. An empty hooded top gently sways back and forth, its arms waving in the air, in a quintessential impression of a scary ghost. Shot against foliage, the projection also gives off an eerie green light (it was first shown under a bed!). This compelling illusion of autonomous movement is simply made: the hooded top, swinging in the breeze on a washing line, is videoed upside down. When projected, it hangs upwards.

The illusion is compelling but we don’t believe in it. We can’t but help see the ghost even though we know that it is just a hooded top projected upside down. Like the magician sawing his or her assistant in half, we can’t quite see how it is done but we don’t believe what we see either. Or even when we can see how it is done, we still don’t quite believe it.

This magical transformation of the banal, ordinary and overlooked into something else, existing in a more glamorous and noticeable economy, is a recurring trick in Caroline McCarthy’s work. Ordinary things escape from their representational familiarity. But they never escape too far: they are never going to make it as what they pretend to be. It is this hovering between visual registers which is uncanny, which strips us of our defences of familiarity and the familiarity of our defences.

A few years ago the magicians Penn and Teller became popular by performing their magic transparently: doing their tricks so that we could see how they were down. For example, they would do the hiding-a-ball -under-three-cups routine with transparent cups, so we could see what was going on. One of the reasons their show was so exciting was that we were looking at the magic and the banality of its explanation at the same time. Just as we escaped we were found again.

A later video installation, Summer, makes something out of nothing. First, there is an empty white monitor; then a brush, as if caught within the monitor, brushes the inside surface of the glass. The brush is itself empty, with no ink nor paint, but it works its way to and fro across the screen. It becomes apparent that it is tracing the outlines of a landscape. Somehow we make out bits of sky; the trunk of a tree; shrubs. It is not an iconically replete image but the trick is that we can see an image at all, when there is literally no image. The image is invented by our continual attention and memory.

The video is looped so that the process of making the image is repeated over and over. There is a quiet desperation to this sisyphean task: the image that isn’t there is always just out of grasp.

These video works are all, in fact, about looking at what isn’t there. They all construct an image but contain a narrative which is an escape from that image. Our expectations about what we are looking at are confounded by the framing and presentation of the video footage: by what is left out and what is not going on as much as by what is there.

These narratives of escape are all tinged by the humour of the out of place. They are, in a sense, demonstrations of ineffectiveness: invitations to look elsewhere. In the installation ‘Untitled (Arrows)’ the Arts’ Block of Trinity College, Dublin has undergone a spectacular and spectacularly ineffectual attack. Forty feet up, the austere modernist wall of the Block is punctuated by clusters of children’s luminous, soft-tipped arrows. The severe gargantuan wall is a sign of the institution’s self-confidence and power; the arrows are a sign of the artist’s self-doubt and marginality in the face of such an institution.

The arrows are ineffectual in a literal attempt at penetrating or destroying the wall and thereby the institution. They are a playful failure. But what they do do, is turn the wall into a support, or ground, for the arrows. It is as if the wall was embarrassed by childish excess. 

Caroline McCarthy’s work with objects is no less concerned with the power of surfaces. Our relationship with everyday objects is mediated by the relentlessly designed and moulded surfaces of those objects. Familiar objects are unremarkable because they are familiar. A bit like the purloined letter hidden in the letter-rack, the particularity of the surfaces of everyday objects are unseen because they are so visible. At the same time, commodities sell themselves to us with the promise of escape. Even the stuff that does exactly what it says on the tin, promises an escape from the broken promises of escape of other packaging. Packaging is a kind of escape: an escape which is always present and always deferred.

The idea of image as escape is explicit in Souvenirs (Blue) and Golden Wonder. Images of swimming-pools are cut out from holiday brochures, so that they become abstract blue shapes. Each one stuck to its own stalk of wire, they are displayed in a long row. Underneath each one, similarly displayed, is a crisp, each one chosen to echo the general shape of the swimming pool above it. 

The swimming-pools are all the same and all different. They are all the same deeply artificial blue and come in all kinds of contrived shapes. The hotel swimming-pool is an essential part of the image of escape that holiday brochures sell, yet the particular features of any one swimming-pool are utterly contingent. Sprung from their escapist setting this bizarre array of contingency becomes obvious in its bathos. This bathos of the swimming-pools meets the elevation of the crisps half way: this is a kind of mutual embarrassment of display. The artificial blue of the swimming-pools is matched by the artificial yellow of the crisps. Holidays offer an escape of a couple of weeks; crisps one of a couple of minutes. Both illusions of escape are predicated upon manufactured images of naturalness. 

In other works with objects, the familiarity and contingency of everyday things are displaced by one product masquerading as another. It is only by going into hiding that these everyday objects can be found. It is in escaping their usual, familiar context that the strangeness of their particular design can be seen.

In TetraCam, for example, our expectations and assumptions about seeing everyday things are confounded by an unlikely transformation. In a ‘Stars In Their Eyes’ kind of a way, a cardboard tetrapack carton takes on the appearance of a surveillance camera. The circular hole for pouring out liquid is painted the obligatory black of a lens casing and the body is painted ubiquitous surveillance beige. This ‘camera’ is mounted on the usual beige bracket of a surveillance camera. 

In a literal sense, the surveillance camera is there to survey, to see, and not to be seen. And this would seem to be borne out by the fact that such cameras are painted in neutral beige. But this is a complex deception: like the panoptican, the camera is there to be seen seeing. The neutral beige of its surface is not to hide this camera but to suggest that there might be other cameras, unseen, watching you. Surveillance could be anywhere and everywhere. The purpose of surveillance is to get you to regulate your own behaviour because you think, or fantasize, that you are being watched. So if you think you might be being watched all the time, you will regulate your behaviour all the time. In fact, there is no need for actual surveillance: surveillance cameras are often not switched on. Thus, the function of the surveillance camera is not to see but to be seen and to be seen ‘hiding.’ 

Thus the carton is hiding in a place of feigned hiding, surveying us with a blind eye. If our reaction to the surveillance camera is a bodily one (the restraint of our behaviour), then our reaction to the TetraCam is also a bodily one. But rather than being a moment of self-control it is the opposite: it is a moment of double take. It is the moment of turning your head. Or the moment of shutting your eyes, shaking your head, and looking again, as if to shake away the shackles of preconception in order to regain the immediacy of looking. It is trying not to see what one is seeing. And this is to puncture the visual economy of surveillance.

As with trompe l’oeil painting, the effect of fooling the eyes is to expose the body. For example, Cornelius Gijsbrechts’ famous painting of the back of a painting is intended to be left casually leaning against a studio wall. When a visitor picks up the painting to see what is on the ‘front’, he or she is faced with the real back. By then it is too late: the spectator has been fooled not just into seeing something but into doing something. It is the body which is out of place: the body that has been fooled into picking up the painting. When you see what the TetraCam is, it is also too late. You are left out of place, unregulated and speechless, in a mixture of delight and embarrassment at the audacity of such a simply subterfuge.

These ideas are extended, and given a consumerist twist, in the Humbrol and Testors Military Range series. In the Humbrol series, an array of plastic moulded bottles are painted to mimic camcorders. They are displayed on glass shelves on a gallery wall. Such a presentation mimics a shop display whilst conforming to the conventions of wall based art. With the Testors Military Range, the bottles are joined by other painted packaging, less recognizable in itself and not mimicking specific goods. These were displayed on long glass shelves, which filled the gallery. Here the conflation of displays is not just between a shop display and a gallery display but between the shop and gallery themselves.

The erstwhile containers all held everyday domestic products. They are painted in shades of grey, silver and black: the colours which have come to mark out luxury, electronic goods. These colours are a uniform that lends authority to goods regardless of what they are. The titles of these works are the names of the hobbyist’s paint used to paint the bottles. In Ireland and Britain these were the numbers of the Humbrol paint series, whilst in the United States the names of greys from the Testors Military Range, used in military uniforms from around the world.

The amateur display of the hobbyist conflicts with the ‘professional’ display of commodities. Amateurs have their own criteria for judging the worth of what they do. Amateur practice is immune from a certain kind of criticism because amateurs do what they do out of love and that love is beyond question. Amateurs are charming because of this. However, the individual object of amateur love is not desirable; on the contrary, it is the standardized products of mass production that are desirable. It is mass produced goods that have value conferred on them by entering an economy of exchange and equivalence. Hand painting these bottles with amateur paint lends them a charm which undermines the slick economy of desire in which commodities normally circulate. These are Cinderella camcorders: discarded disposable bottles of cheap domestic goods wearing the clothes of luxury desire. 

The iconic similarity between bottles and camcorders is barely adequate, yet the illusion compelling. The mimicry of one by the other depends upon the contingent shapes, handles, curves, recesses and embossments of commodity design shared by both. The attention to detail is more important than what those details might be: the function of such design is to keep you focused on the surface and not the contents of the object. When the former East Germany was swallowed up by the former West Germany, one of the first things to go were the standardized, reusable bottles. Despite the sensitivity of West German politicians to environmental issues, this most efficient and least damaging of ways of packaging stuff was thrown out without a thought. This lack of redundant surface detail, of differentiation of image, was not just unbearable to contemporary capitalism, it was unthinkable.

So these fake camcorders are a display of difference, where the difference goes to show that they are all the same. But what is revealed as a lack for these things as commodities is a redemption for these objects as objects. The strangeness of their contingent shapes, escaping from their function as a mark of trivial but definitive difference, becomes something ungraspable.

The Still Life pictures once more stage a collision of surfaces and meanings. Food and drink, most of it fruit, is made out of toilet paper. The vast variety of colours in which toilet paper is made become the colours of the sculpted food. The food stuffs are arranged and photographed in still lifes that sometimes mimic the style of seventeenth century Dutch Still Life and sometimes the photography of 1970’s Good Housekeeping Magazine.

At one level these pictures are illusions. From a distance, at first, they could be pictures of seventeenth century Still Lifes. But then anomalies become noticeable: an avocado in this picture; an ice lolly in that. The spectator is sucked in to have a closer look. Not only are the historical contents unreliable but the surface of the food is too. However well the fake food is made, the toilet paper retains its quality of fragility. The surfaces of the food are not smooth and shiny but pitted and textured. It is as if the food were infected or in the process of decay. In every sense it is unreliable.

Still Life has habitually been seen as the lowest of genres. Its register is everyday life; its commitment is to the mundane and ordinary. Still Life is clustered around everyday objects and routines: food; tables; vessels; cooking; eating; writing etc. Even when these are symbolic displays of luxury and consumption, these are placed in domestic routines and day to day existence. 

Caroline McCarthy uses the form and associations of historic Still Lifes in her ‘Still Lifes.’ However, she is not so much interested in the particularity of what she depicts as in the artifice of the construction of an image. Making images of food by making the food out of toilet paper and photographing it, is a convoluted and deferred process. It is a way for the artist to defer the authority and burden of traditional technique: to indulge herself, like an amateur. It is also a way of removing the rhetorical authority of images which would otherwise be pictures of desire and consumption. They are not what they seem: toilet paper is not paint.

Dutch Still Life paintings of fruit, flowers and creatures were never pictures of nature. On the contrary, they were pictures of science, technology, manufacture and national power. Horticulture was a modern, emerging technology, in which the Dutch lead the world; and this horticulture depended upon empire to bring back scientific specimens from around the globe. These pictures so often include shells and insects because taxonomy of specimens was the leading science of the day: their inclusion is about the subservience of the chaos of nature to human rationality. They are objects that would have been easily understood in those terms at the time. This spirit of scientific observation and classification also helps to explain the detailed and precise style in which these paintings were painted. These were pictures of the power of, and abundance to be had from, human rationality, organization and production over against an unreliable nature.

The 1970s were another time when nature seemed limited and inferior compared to the infinite potential of the artificial and manufactured. Food was processed and packaged and brightly coloured. There was still a belief in the power of science and manufacture to deliver not only a better and healthier future, but also one of greater variety, than nature could provide. Whereas the seventeenth century was a time of confidence in the abundance of production, the 1970s were a time of confidence in the abundance of consumption. Pictures of food in both were fantasies about escaping the contingencies of nature.

The spectrum of colours in which toilet paper is available is an example of the excess of consumption. Colour has no baring on the function of toilet paper. The colour is only there to create difference and choice, where neither is necessary. Colour is artificial surface.

The moulding of the artificial surface of toilet paper into putatively natural surface of the fruit is an unholy collision: the artificiality and labour of the process despoil the natural image of the fruit. Moreover, the fruit is haunted by the associations of the toilet paper in its previous existence. Toilet paper is tainted by the thought of shit: a memory before of what comes after. Waste, from the dining table to the toilet, is the hidden secret of consumerism: both its bad conscience and its secret logic.

Escape has a different set of unstable fantasies and unreliable surfaces. The timber frame of a room is built within the gallery. There is no plasterboard on the frame, so that its struts become like the bars on a cage. Inside is a domestic space: a bedsit strewn with everyday objects, as though the occupant might return at any time. However, each and every thing in it is manufactured with a leopard skin pattern. These are all everyday things found in shops over the past eighteen months.

Removed from the leopard and printed on western commodities, the leopard’s spots are a sign of the exotic and a sign of escape. They lend the objects they decorate the fantasy of being something else, somewhere else. Any single object in leopard skin would be unremarkable. It is the excess which is the mark of obsession or desperation. Like a gambler chasing his or her loses, it is as if just one more object might make the dream come true. Repetition is the mark of an addict.

The ordinary domestic space is made extraordinary through this excess of pattern, this excess of surface. But the excessive repetition of the pattern shows its failure to fulfil the dream of escape. The symbol of wildness and nature is emptied of its exoticism. 

The skeletal walls of the room look like a cage. The function of the cage is to contain and control the unpredictability of the wild. To make it safe. In this cage, it is unclear what the danger is, what you are meant to be looking at. The room is a fiction of surfaces and phantom presences. 

The room is also a collection of real consumable objects. It is just that what the objects are, in terms of their function, is irrelevant. The fantasy of escape meets the pragmatism of capitalism: both are interested in the transformative power of images, in the disjunction between surface and what is inside. But the addict’s desire, whether of dreams or things, can never be fulfilled; the promise of the surface can never be met.

Escaping, escaping from and escaping to, is a process of becoming, a process of transformation. But as well as being about fleeing in the present, it is about being found, and being found transformed. Escape entails redemption. In the final passage of Minima Moralia, Adorno says: “Knowledge has no light but that shed on the world by redemption: all else is reconstruction, mere technique. Perspectives must be fashioned that displace and estrange the world, reveal it to be, with its rifts and crevices, as indigent and distorted as it well appear one day in the messianic light.”2

1 Adam Phillips, Houdini’s Box, Faber & Faber, London, 2001.
2 Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia, Verso, London, 1951/1991.