Behind the Mirror
Fiona Ackerman discovers Foucault’s concept of heterotopia
Translated by Susan Richter
Is there a way for us, metaphorically speaking, to climb up on our own shoulders to find out more about the constructing principles of our perception? Can we explore the way in which we represent the world, and in so doing obtain the freedom to shape it?
Fiona Ackerman embarks upon a voyage of discovery in her paintings by climbing on her own shoulders and those of other artists. Her research instrument is the mirror, which she uses to make unusual perspectives visible. In so doing she exposes connections that lie beyond our everyday perception.
Her approach combines philosophy with painting in a very original way. The structuralist concept that experience is borne not by time but by space becomes her stock in trade for construction and the agenda of her artistic proposition. As Michel Foucault wrote,.
The present epoch will perhaps be above all the epoch of space. We are in the epoch of simultaneity: we are in the epoch of juxtaposition, the epoch of the near and far, of the side-by-side, of the dispersed. We are at a moment, I believe, when our experience of the world is less that of a long life developing through time than that of a network that connects points and intersects with its own skein. (Of Other Spaces, 1967)
The points in the network are linked with each other, though not necessarily in proportion to the spaces between them or the way in which they relate to each other; rather, there are principles of arrangement that potentially connect points located far away from each other, while points adjacent in space may not necessarily interact. Accordingly, in the visual arts it is possible to simultaneously present what is heterogeneous, to place things that initially appear unconnected next to each other (Fig. “What has already been said is not enough”), or to portray them as isolated, extracted from their everyday functional context (Fig. “This is not a pipe”).
Ackerman discovers Foucault at precisely the moment in which she is embarking upon a fundamentally new, realistic direction in her painting. The composer who first devises paintings without intent from randomly generated entities of color and shape becomes the arranger. Her palette is a bundle of selected objects placed in a test assembly to establish experimental relationships before rendering the assemblage on canvas. The freedom lost by committing to what is concrete is compensated by the opportunity to arrange freely. Here she makes good use of coincidence.
Her first experimental laboratory is her own studio. By reproducing certain gestures and forms from earlier paintings – extracting a kind of personal symbolic language – and relating them to each other, she opens up a new gateway to her own art. This also entails a process of self-awareness: by quoting herself she takes inventory of the objects in her interior, spiritual space and acquires the freedom to shape this space. Yet the paintings are not isolated; they are positioned in her studio, where they find their place among random everyday things, such as abandoned brushes, scraps of paper, patches of paint, chairs and shoes. On one hand, she depicts this scene as if it has been photographed; on the other, she incorporates non-realistic and narrative elements. Pictorial elements seem to spring into action and step out of their frame. In Fig. “The Calm before the Storm” the drawing of the cloud begins to rain beyond the limits of the page on which it appears to be drawn.
She plays with the viewer’s perspectives. The person who at first glance would seem to be the first-order observer - namely Ackerman the photographer - takes the liberty of modifying her own painting depicted in the picture. In so doing she returns to her role as second-order observer, the designer of reality. Even the objects in the studio that have been extracted from their functional contexts point to the histories of their application. Interior and exterior space become visible simultaneously.
Yet this rearrangement of things in the artist’s work is not random, it is her agenda: compositions never lose the character of an experiment performed with the intention of giving objects voice in a new experimental arrangement. In this, too, she follows Foucault: her interest is not directed toward haphazard placement; positioning is deliberate:
But among all these sites, I am interested in certain ones that have the curious property of being in relation with all the other sites, but in such a way as to suspend, neutralize, or invert the set of relations that they happen to designate, mirror, or reflect. (Foucault, Of Other Spaces, 1967)
If these spaces can be found in reality, Foucault designates them as heterotopias. They fulfill important functions in all cultures, and make visible, as in a mirror, the importance of certain cultural values and types of behaviour. There are, for instance, heteropias of deviation: places such as reform schools, prisons and psychiatric institutions where behaviour that deviates from the social norm is isolated. What was previously forced into the background comes to the fore, precisely because it is not permitted, because it disturbs or even suspends the order of things and functional context. Immediately, one can recognize how the construction of reality works, how things receive their meaning. The mirror itself is thus a heteropia. A reversed image makes visible that which is not itself; shows what is, but what could also be entirely different. The reflection always depends on the angle and incident of light, on the perspective of the observer. We recognize reality not in where it is, but in where it originates.
Ackerman’s interest goes further, too. She not only plays with the heterotopic alienation of spaces, but also seeks and finds spaces that are themselves heterotopias. Like the naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, she sets off on expeditions armed with her research instrument, the mirror in the form of a camera. What she has learned in her own heterotopia, in the workshop of ideas and imagination of her studio, she applies to the studios of other artists. She enters them and rearranges what she finds. The method of appropriating these works thus entails repositioning and linking to objects that are somehow linked with each other. Here, too, the paintings are rearranged and endowed with narrative elements. In a manner of speaking, they are assimilated into this newly created scene, such that they are seen in a different way in the context of the studio.This process becomes especially clear in the works emerging from the studio of painter Gregor Hiltner. In this idiosyncratic world – containing, for example, African sculptures painted over by the artist next to manifold objects found in the workshop – his paintings begin telling stories and posing riddles whose answers lie outside their frames.
Studios are always forges of reality, as the artist is the designer of reality in his art. Yet this alone does not make them heteropias. The transition happens only when a mirror is held up. Through her perspective on other artists’ studios, Ackerman opens up possibilities for interpreting reality that remain hidden, but which extend beyond a single work of art. She places art in an interpretive horizon located behind the artist. In so doing she discovers a way to make observations about the history of art in a visual way.
What she finds in the process is astonishing. In the truest sense of the word it opens up new perspectives - e.g., when she has the slanted plinth penetrating into artist Alexander Seiler’s archaic - organic world of sculpture as a monumental, white geometric shape; or when she relates Luc Paradis’ paintings and the objects in his studio to each other on the walls and desk of his studio such that they mutually interpret one another. (Fig. “Paradis”)
Can we climb up on our own shoulders?
Yes, we can: In the art of painting.
It will be very exciting to see what artistic worlds she will visit on her next voyages of discovery.
Expeditions Through the Mirror
Fiona Ackerman – 2012
I am generally a tidy person who appreciates an organized, minimalist environment. My studio however, has always been a chaotic mess that brings an expression of total confusion and discomfort to the faces of those who have visited. In my life, I have accepted that there is a time for stubbornness and a time for compromise. I recognize a need for sober, rational judgment and I have resisted most urges for careless abandon.
In my studio, the primary room where my art practice is played out, different laws govern. In outside life, moderation is the mantra. In the studio, obsession is indulged. Here, the most absurd ideas are elevated while practical (responsible) considerations are left only superficially considered. As if trying to solve a complicated calculus problem, I fixate on inching closer and closer to a finely tuned composition. Fueled by a sense of epiphany (sometimes a false epiphany), I have often over painted weeks of work beyond recovery, and beyond the better judgment that rules my daily life outside of the studio.
While working on the first exhibition of these new paintings for Winsor Gallery, Canada (2012), I discovered the concept of a ‘Heterotopia’ put forth by Michael Foucault in a lecture in 1967. I have spent the time since exploring the many ways in which the idea of Heterotopia relates to painting, to the studio and to artistic practice. An oversimplification defines a heterotopia as a place where the real world, or ‘normal’ world is reflected, but is also inverted. With heterotopia, Foucault tries to conceptualize other places, sites that exist within society but that are at the same time in opposition to it or an inversion of it.
In contrast to the working world outside my studio doors, my studio, like all the other studios hidden away among offices and storefronts, is a heterotopia. In these hidden think tanks, an artistic exercise expected to define something true or philosophical about the world outside its doors runs amuck. Tangents of association mix with struggle and play. The result is discovery, and need not be more. In studio spaces, we create a place outside the every day, a counter-site to use Foucault’s terms, in which we can reflect our experience of being, and turn it upside-down. Under exposed pipes and inadequate light, a self-indulgent theatre is played out, a heterotopia blossoms.
One of Foucault’s simplest examples of a heterotopia is that of a mirror. The space inside the mirror (actually on the surface) is a reflection of the real world – inverted. The image is what the mirror sees, and thus it is the mirror that describes. It is upon looking at this backward refection that we learn something about what is being reflected, ie the real world. This is precisely how a painting functions. It’s not the goal of a painting to try and duplicate reality. Nor can it be through simple reproduction that a painting can reveal any hidden truth about its subject. It is by reflection, through inversion, by looking at something metaphorically or literally upside down that a new truth is found reflected onto the surface of the mirror / painting.
So if the studio is the heterotopia where I run against the norms and conventions of my daily life in the world, and the paintings are where this world is reflected, turned upside down and understood through my own hand, than it seem clear to me why I should be doing paintings of my studio. In my “studio paintings”, I make a heterotopia of my heterotopia. But there is of course a limit to what can be learned from a mirror that is simply reflecting itself into infinity. The time came for a series of expeditions: I turned the mirror to other artists’ studios.
These expedition paintings offer me a way to conceptually challenge myself in foreign (visual) lands. And true to nature of exploration, I learn far more about myself than about what I am exploring. As these studio paintings develop, as I visit new studios and explore the visual world of the artists around me, I come to the shocking revelation that I am in fact on the other side of the mirror. Rather than learning something more about the artists’ spaces I manipulate, I am learning something more about myself as a painter. Rather than putting myself into their world, I am taking them into mine.
Foucault says: the mirror is a sort of shadow that gives my own visibility to myself, that enables me to see myself where I am absent. (Foucault, -Of Other Spaces,‛ 24.)