To some degree, all artists’ work is about perception; but some art is more self-conscious of that fact than others. The work of Demian LaPlante at Gallery 414 sits squarely within the territory of heightened self-awareness.
He looks at looking, considering both its psychic and social implications, and acknowledges that looking is the act of navigating between one’s self and the world.
After seeing this show, I could not help but think of Duchamp’s Etans Donnes at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It was the last work that he made, and it took him years to finish. To experience it, you walk up to a large wooden door with two holes drilled into it at eye level. You look inside and are confronted with a naked woman lying back in a field, legs spread toward you, holding a gas lamp that flickers in the soft light of the interior.
Duchamp sets up a few levels of voyeurism at once: the artist as observer, and the viewer as observer of an observed situation. Demian LaPlante also constructs situations of voyeurism, but he teases it into an act of both power and paralysis.
In the first room of Gallery 414, LaPlante has set up a series of photographs that have been digitally manipulated to include images of watchtowers and cameras in seemingly innocuous spaces. The voyeurism inherent in art has been transformed into surveillance. The power of the act of looking is almost menacingly emphasized.
There are three rooms with video/sculpture installations. One involves an 8-foot wheel with a cement sphere hanging from the center. Facing the wheel is a video that documents this wheel being pushed through the streets of London. We soon realize that the sphere at the center is really a weight that was attached to the video camera to keep it upright. There is something almost obscene about a large clunky device whose sole purpose is to look, rolling through the public streets. It is as if the act of looking has been outed, to show its inherent voyeurism and potential for power.
In the next room is a shiny, irregularly-shaped metallic box with a small hole at one end. It sits on the floor in front of a video that relays a fish eye view of a nighttime walk through the countryside. We come to realize that the box was the carrying case for a camera. The tiny hole allowed the only light in, via a system of lenses that mediated the recording that we see. In this case, the warped distancing that occurs between the beholder and the beheld manifests itself in the image itself.
Another elaborate recording machine sits in the center of the third room. It looks like a giant blender with a boom camera that can circle around its Plexiglas container. The video shows the machine at work with water at its center, but it looks like the blender is creating a vortex or twister of some kind. As time progresses, the vortex changes shape, becoming smaller and then more extreme.
All of these machines are about the psychic distancing of the act of looking. Whether through a sculptural constructions, contortionist lenses or pure mechanical speed, they emphasize a mediating force between the viewer and the world. Marx called this alienation the most important cost of the introduction of machines into our daily lives. But at the same time, machines have allowed for greater degrees of voyeurism and surveillance, activities that are at once isolated as well as collaborative, or interactive.
Demian LaPlante’s current work comes squarely out of the tradition of self-conscious looking, with the added twist of having been created at the beginning of a cy borg age when there is decreasingly little separation between machines and human beings. What is natural and what is cultural have been blurred by cell phones, text messaging, so-called reality TV, video monitors in cars, and the constant intercession of TV, film and photography with our “authentic” perception of the world. LaPlante does not judge this condition. He simply explores it as any other natural phenomenon of what we might think of as the real.
Images courtesy Gallery 414.
Noah Simblist is an artist and writer currently living in Dallas.