all works © Lisa Peachey 2015

Treatment for a psychosomatic institution

Commissioned by Site Gallery in response to the exhibition
‘Welcome to the New, Ruined Institute’
, by Elizabeth Price

‘Man, despite appearances, must know that when he talks of human dignity in the presence of animals, he lies like a dog. For in the presence of illegal and essentially free beings (the only real outlaws) the stupid feeling of practical superiority gives way to a most uneasy envy…. There is in every man, an animal thus imprisoned, like a galley slave, and there is a gate, and if we open the gate, the animal will rush out, like the slave finding his way to escape. The man falls dead, and the beast acts as a beast, with no care for the poetic wonder of the dead man. Thus man is seen as a prison of bureaucratic aspect.’

1 Georges Bataille.

In a black box in front of a projected, undescribed, silent non-site2 of an institution, artefacts seem to float and sway before me. A light is on. Then off. An exhalation drains an unfamiliar liquid. Meretricious surfaces gleam like milk-bottle tops to a magpie. A bowl, a fan (or is it a respirator), a mutated trophy; other things familiar, yet unformed, uncoagulated, are sliced into by the video camera’s frame. The camera amnesiacally sniffs through the artefacts like a dog over a long-dead carcass – slowly and methodically, but then without warning more randomly, unexplainably searching for the marrow, or the heart.  Yet more viscous, unctuous fluids are pumped and regurgitated, flop over edges. Standing, I feel an uneasy sense, maybe vertigo. I am conscious of my thinking, a searching for orientation, for form. An idiosyncratic yet not unfamiliar collection of thoughts; in its current incarnation many will have stood before this work in their own worlds, their own architectures; but I can only share my own.

Laika was a dog, or at least she started out that way. A mongrel saved from the streets, she was trained in incarceration before being sent on a one-way trip to heaven. In a sacrifice to the pursuit of knowledge, possession and power that was the space race, she was held hostage in Sputnik 2 and sent into an ever-expanding outer space. But not as a dog, a whole being, but as a device with use-value – a series of dismembered functions that could be recorded: heartbeat, respiration rate, maximum arterial pressure, movement, and consumption. Stripped of her former existence as condemned outcast, lost or free spirit, not long past but many light years away, she was consumed by and subsumed into the discourse of the institution that owned her. A vessel of transformation of food to shit, life to data, fact to propaganda and myth, she finally burnt up in the atmosphere.3 While the blood still pumped through her veins, her life had been quarantined, sterilised and sacrificially neutered, without being made neutral, taking on the mechanisations of the project until entropy occurred.

My thoughts shift back to Price’s video diorama. Condemned as ruined from the beginning, as a collection of objects with spurious or past use-value, it consumes dismembered prisoners in the body of the sealed institution. The artefacts themselves hide, skulk in the shadows of the room beyond, awaiting their time to be ritually slaughtered. As I watch one object being drained, I remember that in order to enter a vacuum, one must fully exhale. While the institution once claimed to be a neutral, vacant space or vacuum, it is of course full of ideology, ready to mutate. The atmosphere appears sterile and orchestrated – there is none of Bataille’s dust4, that human base mess – all is shiny and polished. And yet the liquid still flows, thick, ready to congeal; as one artefact dies, so another goes on living, spawned from the institute’s debris. Are these then fully dead artefacts, or mutating organs of the machine? Is this the fountain of youth? Is there life in the old dog yet? And yet I can only think of embalming fluid, pumped into the veins and cells and replacing the blood with disinfectant and preservatives, to still any cross-contamination of life and death, life and myth (taxidermy and taxonomy are kept in the same room.) The liquid in some cases escapes the container – blood is spilt on the plinths – hearses built to transport the dead. The objects have not been and will not be subsumed more than momentarily without altercation.

The hardest part of incarceration must be the erasure of the detainee from the outside world, their being made unreachable, untouchable. But even while Price decomposes the institution and deprives us our time with it in visceral terms, she gives it attention. As Bataille says: ‘To break up the subject and re-establish it on a different basis is not to neglect the subject; so it is in a sacrifice, which takes liberties with the victim and even kills it, but cannot be said to neglect it’5. So it is that Price takes liberties with the institutions in which her works are shown, exposing their internal architectures through her cuts and fissures in acts more violent than Matta Clark’s actions on similarly condemned sites6, because though dismembered, she still leaves (and needs) her victims alive. Inserting her institute within the museum creates again the heterogeneity of Crimp’s ruined museum7, and all is again nurtured ruin. Partially erased from life, as on death row then perhaps, it is the artefacts that have vertigo, are afraid to fall, when the context is swimming around them. But there is no need to fear, as they have already fallen, for the institute is already ruined. Ruined as Etant Donnés8 perhaps – given, defiled and therefore forever incarcerated as fallen, and as prisoner? As it is a ‘given’ that the works are no longer virginal, but tainted by the institution’s desire to make pure.

Highlighting their elaborate fictions within her own (themselves doubled up as the clutter and debris of the real room and the fiction of the video, as a double negative with no dialectic, no outside) at first seems like a strange form of auto-cannibalism, but in another breath breeds something akin to a resuscitation after sacrifice, where the unrelenting reality of fiction itself, in a true formalist sense, is given new life. In my mind, the base animal that is reality rushes forth in collapse from the coupling of fictions – blood again is spilt, and it oozes a truth, a truth that fictions, and suspension of disbelief, are now the only truths we have. The fiction is dead; long live the fiction.

1 Georges Bataille, in ‘Metamorphosis’ section in ‘Critical Dictionary’, reproduced in Bataille, Leiris, Griaule, Einstein, Desnos, Encyclopaedia Acephalica, Atlas Arkhive Three, London, Atlas Press, 1995, p60.

2 This is in reference to Robert Smithson’s notion of Site/Non-site - this is discussed throughout his writings, but in particular in the following: ‘Interview with Robert Smithson (1970)’ ed. Paul Toner, Robert Smithson, in Smithson, Collected Writings, ed. Flam, Jack, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1996, pp.234-241.

3 It was only finally admitted in 2002 that Laika had died five to seven hours into the flight, but was cremated some five months later on re-entry in April 1958.

4 See Georges Bataille, ‘Dust’ in ‘Critical Dictionary’, reproduced in Encyclopaedia Acephalica, pp. 42-43

5 Georges Bataille, Manet, New York, Rizzoli, 1955, p16, reproduced in Formless: A user’s guide, Yves Alain Bois and Rosalind E Krauss, Zone Books, New York, 1997, p21.

6 See Sabine Breitwieser (ed), Matta-Clark, Gordon, 1943-1978.:  Reorganizing structure by drawing through it, Wien, Generali Foundation, Köln, W. König, 1997, and James Attlee,  Gordon Matta-Clark : the space between / James Attlee and Lisa Le Feuvre, Tucson, AZ, Nazraeli Press, 2003.

7 See Douglas Crimp, On the museum's ruins, with photographs by Louise Lawler, Cambridge, Mass, London, MIT, 1993, particularly the essay of the same name, on pp44-65.

8 Duchamp’s work Etant Donnés, is discussed in the following publication: Anne D'Harnoncourt, Etant donnés: 1ê - La chute d'eau, 2ê - Le gaz d'eclairage: reflections on a new work by Marcel Duchamp, Anne d'Harnoncourt and Walter Hopps. Philadelphia, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1987.