Mediamatic Magazine vol 4#3 Friedemann Malsch 1 Jan 1990

Ambiguous Figures

The MIT-project


Ambiguous Figures -

We make life easy for ourselves in this world

In the face of life’s ever unclearer structures, and in view of the huge destructive potential of the globe, it is indeed rather pleasant to surround oneself with simple, i.e. concrete objects, with the realities of the world of objects, and to derive the world of feelings from this ascertainable objectivity. Harmony can be re-experienced in the sense of stepping out of the jet-stream to the downfall of mankind. What is more: objects readily replace the process of thinking by confining the real world on the one hand, but at the same time by creating a distance between the individual and his real self. In many ways, they in fact form our horizon. Neither are broad fields of theory excluded from this phenomenon, in particular that Zeitgeist theory of fine words and decadent attitude which has dominated the last decade. But even this theory with its critical appearance, believing itself to be beyond all adventures of experience, in the nirvana of the immaterial networks, in the bipolar world of the media which knows only extreme power and extreme powerlessness, sings the hymn of praise to the object world. Motivation for this is, however, fear of the horror of occupying oneself. Art should offer a solution to this, present a world of harmony which, in reality, no longer exists. The ideal world of art is subordinated to a nostalgic feeling, the spiritual limitations of which are incarnated in the garden gnome. Under these conditions, external and internal reality certainly does quickly become intermingled.

One short episode in James Colemans new installation The MiT Project (ig8g) makes precisely this point: a photographer in the advertising sector receives an assignment for a collection of pyjamas. He makes himself into the model, and his own bedroom becomes the ambience. Due to the fault of both himself and others, it takes a long time for him to achieve a satisfactory result. Before the assignment can be completed, the photographers bedroom has been transformed into a studio which is unfamiliar to him, so that he is afraid of falling asleep for fear of intimate spheres being exposed to persons unknown to him. The photographer becomes the victim of his own ambitions, he is caught.

Allegoric Approach

This is only one of 14 episodes composing The MirProject. Coleman unfolds in these, with great mastery, a spectrum of the confusion of the internal and external world. All the short stories deal with photography as the mediator between the two worlds. The protagonists vary greatly, men and women, amateurs and professionals, children and adults, designers, housewife, reporter and, repeatedly, the professional photographer. In a reserved manner typical of Coleman, the presentation of the piece is limited to the basics: a blacked out room with blank walls. At the entrance opposite the front wall, on a high desk, is a tower made up of three slide projectors, an audio recorder and a timer. Small-scale slides are projected onto the wall while stories are related by means of various loudspeakers.

The work arose during a stay in summer 1989 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology at the invitation of the List Visual Art Center which is affiliated to the mit. It is characteristic in several ways of the way Coleman uses the media technologies for his artistic aims. In this context it is important to stress that, although Coleman has been familiar with various artistic media since the end of the 60s, he is in no way that 'media artist’ he is largely considered to be. As other artists of his generation, since the mid-6os he has been using various media such as film, photography, video, performance and sound recordings. However, he does not appear to have a preference for any one particular medium. With the exception of performance, which does not appear in his works until the 80s, all forms of media are used to an equal extent side by side. Indeed this expresses Coleman’s special attitude not to open up to the self-referential aspects of reproduction-media in the context of art, but to allegorize these consistently and radically and to subject them to the ethics of artistic work (Coleman’s own statement on this, Art can never totally be reduced to a concept of simple acts of self-expression, has been cited on several occasions). This is one of the reasons why Coleman does not fit into either the McLuhan-like media enthusiasm of the 60s or into the present renaissance of media art. Formerly Coleman’s work was lacking in the formalistic principles of the self-thematising medium, and nowadays his slide and video installations appear to be technically insufficiently up to date to arouse the interest of a wide audience. Furthermore, Coleman's work is marked by an unusual thoroughness resulting quantitatively in a low volume of work. The individual works are compressed to such an extent, the formal and thematic structures so tightly woven together, that for the observer to appropriately absorb each piece, he requires an exceptional willingness to examine it. These are all reasons for the artist enjoying relatively low fame in the face of the relevance of his work to the currrent-day situation. However, Coleman was never concerned about fashion affairs.

Since the mid-6os his work has been characterised by two thematic principles, on the one hand by the experimental search for the conditions of the picture and its perception, and furthermore by the question of individual and cultural identity. Both threads also stand for certain phases in the development of his work which Anne Rorimer cautiously defined in 1985 in a five-year- rhythm: As such these may be divided into periods that encompass perceptual installations, ïg70-74; installations involving a psychological, social, historical or cultural dimension, 1975-79; and works that take place in a theatrical context, 1980-85. In spite of limiting the perspective which such systematising of the Coleman oeuvre involves, the first two phases can be interpreted, above all with regard to content, (the ’theatrical' phase should, in my opinion, be regarded more in a practical respect as a positive appraisal of the thread of the narrative which is always present in his work; in this respect, this is, metaphorically-speaking, a reference to the discussions of the 80s, however it does not have the same relevance concerning content as the first two phases). Examples can also be found in the mit Project, but, characteristically, in a changed context. They are not themselves the theme of the work but serve to thematise a problem area with which they are connected: the person of the artist and the effects of his work. The very first episode points out the complexity of this theme. A photographer receives an assignment for an advertising series for safety belts, and he decides to reconstruct an accident which he himself was involved in some yearspreviously. The staging of this accident produces in himself an identification with the simulated event as self-experience, and reflections are made on the effect of the photographs and their presentation, on the illusioning character of their presentation: "What would have happened if...? Strong imaginative powers are connected to this question, and these are triggered off by the photographic staging, and finally simulate the actual event as an experience. Coleman has reached the essence of the theme: the question of the origin and future of the artist's existence.


The installation Seeing for Oneself from 1987/8, also a slide-installation with soundtrack, had already emphasized the role of the artist and the mechanics of his work. In the narrative structure of this work, modelled on popular photo novels, filled with the pathos of love, jealousy, family drama and detective story, Coleman morphologised the events occurring in a remote old castle by means of the architectonic structure to an organism of the work of the artist-ego (If the moral of the tale only becomes clear after several viewings, it does not, however, render it any the less unwarranted. It is part of Coleman’s style of working for the compressed, compact message to be disclosed only gradually, even to those with an ability for concentrated reception). Earlier works also alluded to the role of the artist, for example, the performance Now and Then (1981). Coleman developed the scenario from the daydreams of two adults who, as children, had crept into a shopwindow and posed as models. The performance shows the two adults, a man and a woman, reliving the childhood dream by dressing in the fashionable style of the early 50s and posing accordingly. In this piece, the presentation of the conscious reliving of a childhood dream, the transposition into another time and to other contexts serves as the metaphorising of the intermingling of inner and outer world, subjective experience and imaginative power i.e. the allegorising of the artistic work. Four years previously the installation Box (Ahhareturnaboul) had connected internal event with the presentation of external event using the example of the Irish boxer Gene Tunney: during the documentary recordings of the return fight with Jack Dempsey for the world heavyweight championship in 1927, a voice sounds from the tape citing the fleeting thoughts, feelings and impulses of the Irishman. The main topic of this work, the finding of individual identity at the moment of greatest challenge, appears in the light of the MiT Project as an early allegory to the artist. The physical level of artistic identity appears transformed in episodes of this new work just like the couple from Now and Then. Whereas this is taken up in a form which is only slightly changed in the story of two designers working together on advertising matters, the theme of Box appears less directly in the episode on the professional photographer who is arrested because his facial features were interpreted as the reflection of inner traits, but which in reality reflect the traces of the events documented by him over the years.

Whereas various other episodes point to the diversity of the effective radius of artistic work - for example, the final episode with the photographer, who creates 'dreamrooms' for interior decorating magazines, paradox appearances of pure fictions as documents; another group of episodes has as its central theme the introspective influencing of the effect of real pictures by subjective moods, for example in the Narcissus who continually observes himself in the mirror and questions his own appearance, until he recognises himself as Frankenstein’s monster; in a further story, the young photographer sees his self portrait as the anticipation of his own old age in the sense of Dorian Gray - the story of the arrested photo-police-reporter develops into an allegory of the mutual penetration of various levels of reality. A further episode of this kind portrays a father who repeatedly photographs his small son because he considers this as a means of verifying the similarity of them both. However, these acts of photography take the father back to his own youth in which he was kidnapped as a baby. Without ever having seen the kidnapper, he has, however, a clear picture of the kidnappers appearance. His gaze at his own son is transformed and a strange searching can be seen in the kid’s eyes.

Ambiguous Figures

At this point, Coleman's concept of the nature of pictures is portrayed: they are entities, the meaning of which can only be disclosed by a polyperspective approach. They always carry a secretive aura which is conceptually intangible, not least due to the indirect character of mediating by means of language. The text supplement presented serves only the relativating of ’objective’ patterns of perception. An example of this was presented in the installation Slide Piece (1973): along with a slide showing a small anonymous square in a suburb of Milan, various descriptions of the picture are presented by different persons over loudspeakers. All the descriptions are shown to differ considerably, they hardly overlap. Two years later the 'subjective' reality of the work Clara and Dario corresponded to this ‘objective’ relativity of the perception of pictures. In this piece a slide projection of the heads of a man and a woman is shown, while a conversation is heard between lovers. The photos are, however, completely neutral portraits which do not enter into a relationship with each other. This is portrayed merely by the aura of narration.

It therefore becomes clear that Coleman subjects his artistic media principally to the claims of the artistic will of expression. Each individual work makes use of a specific technology because only this is capable of achieving the process of allegorising the narrated text. This has the effect that the observer as a rule is scarcely aware of the 'mediality' of the individual work. For this reason, Coleman’s works always appear somewhat misplaced in exhibitions which deal with individual media.

One important aspect should not be overlooked in this context. For Coleman the ‘media’ are nothing more than metaphors of art and allegories of the artist himself. In as far as they always play a mediatory role between various realities of temporal, spatial, cultural and social nature, they are ambiguous figures mediating between the various worlds without being pinpointed conceptually i.e. as an object.
The short installation Playback for a Daydream (1974) shows precisely this. It shows the linedrawing of a head which could belong to either a rabbit or a duck. Looking back once again from the mrProject, this could be seen as Coleman's first symbol for the artist: in the ambiguous figure, in the ambivalent freedom of unhindered 'wild' roaming between the worlds, but also in the associated isolation from them. The result is a romantic artistic concept, which, against all claims to the contrary, still applies.

translation Ann Thursfield-Stingelwagner