Tatiana Trouvé’s sculptural installation (click image left) Black Polder  at the 50th Venice Biennale in 2003 was memorable. Like a great deal of contemporary sculpture it plays with narrative in a non-narrative, quasi-abstractionist, mode. In this case the visual game was complex and rewarding. There is something especially fascinating about scale in the context of sculptural imagination. A practising artist constantly sees objects in her everyday life that she can transpose into sculpture.
For example, one plays with a small object on a table or desk, perhaps wrapping something around it, positioning it in a particular manner, juxtaposing it with something else. Such doodling with the things around one can evolve into maquettes and actual sculpture. One thinks here of the work of Claus Oldenburg who took small, everyday objects such as a trowel or clothespin and transformed them into monumental sculptures. His were rather simple transformations, traditional integral sculptures, made complex by recontextualisation. Trouvé’s Black Polder, in contrast, is installation consisting of spatially extended transpositions and recombinations of the elements of her everyday experience.
The references are various and traverse semantic categories not with abandon, but with some narrative direction. Domestic signs—setees, cushions, soap, chocolate—meld, somewhat disturbingly, into the non-place (Augé 1995) of institutions, with hospital-like screens (albeit a bit up-market in leatherette), and plexiglas screens that are not really screens because we can see through them (which implies surveillance and social barriers and boundaries). A text accompanying Trouvé’s Venice Biennale installation stated:
Dreams, memories and allegories play a central role in these fetish-like sculptures. Combining organic material such as chocolate with metal and plastic, these works are at once strangely familiar yet distant, creating an unusual psychological tension. Trouvé has said that the child-like scale of objects “show the possibility of realising a project by using the involuntary changes affected by memory (which are also changes in scale)”.
Her comment: “The involuntary changes affected by memory (which are also changes in scale)” is especially interesting. It relates to the experience of seeing something small and realising in imagination (which is informed by memory) what it might be like if it were a large: if it were a building, sculpture, a spaceship, or whatever. And it also draws our attention to our memories which, as the philosopher David Hume noted, are reduced impressions of things and experiences. Although now we would think less in terms of an 18th century concept of an impression in wax—something which the Surrealist René Magritte pictured (see below)—and more in terms of synthesis.
By “synthesis” I mean an unconscious cognitive process of which we have little understanding but which could have some level of analogy to the way in which computers can translate images and sounds etc. into and out of code. The difference being that in the mind this process is so much more plastic. Look at an object then look away and examine its “impression” in your mind, how it becomes absorbed and entwined in other cognitive modes than that of the visual image. Examine, phenomenologically, how this mental image becomes implicated in language, for example. Surely we are dealing here with some kind of encoding. That is certainly the opinion current in contemporary psychology, neuropsychology, and cognitive science.
But whether it is a Humean, Magrittean, wax impression, or the more immaterial mode of cognitive information—transcoded and synthesised memories morphing into thoughts—there is a radical transformation of the original thing or experience, and the beauty of consciousness (informed by unconscious cognition) lies in the way in which it can reconfigure and recombine the data it accumulates.
So in a sense, yes, this sculptural installation is a dreamscape. But what is most interesting, aesthetically, and, perhaps, what gives this work its appeal is how we can link it with surrealism, in terms of its montage of materials and references, and yet how totally stylistically distinct this work is from the genre of surrealism.
This difference stems, in part, from the use of a strategy that surrealism touched upon but never really developed: installation. Installation allows the references to be more spatially extended and less concentrated than is the case in surrealist objects or images. Black Polder works well as an extended installation. Although there are two titles provided Black Polder (Chocolate) and Black Polder (Beer), all the objects on exhibition integrate extremely well due to coherent scale and sense of design. And this sense of design which is, at root, modernist points to another way in which this installation differs from the genre of surrealism; because surrealism was fundamentally antithetical to the modernist style represented by movements such as De Stijl, Constructivism and the Bauhaus.
But although there are a host of references to design in Black Polder ultimately its scale underscores its lack of function. These objects are sculptures which means they are devoid of any use value. They are fundamentally objects of spectacle. They are toy-like but they are not toys because there is little that is childish about them. For one, they are too stylish; for another, the viewer encounters a number of sado-masochistic references. Chains hang in bunches from sharp butcher’s hooks. And there is a preponderance of leather or, to be more exact, leatherette (which takes the sting out of the tail). Then we remember the disturbing conjunction of the sofas and hospital-like screens.
The trestles are a little puzzling but they seem to refer to making and designer tables sometimes use the trestle motif; although here the trestles are the basic kind one would find in a workshop, albeit a toy workshop. The piercing rings resonate with the S&M references but the sleigh bells hanging off sheets of leatherette slung table-like across two trestles gives rise to totally different connotations.
At the end of the tour around Black Polder we have quite a few loose ends, but also some narrative coherence in the confrontation of institutional with domestic references and the general superimpostion of the comforting concept of “toy” with the more disturbing sado-masochistic connotations. From the point of view of aesthetic judgement it is interesting to compare Black Polder with Pae White’s Too Much Night on which I recently posted. Both are installations that use juxtaposition to play with a post-surrealist disruption of common sense. But we can see more visual coherence in Black Polder. We can treat Black Polder like a well-formed abstract painting or musical composition. Accordingly, the we can forgive the fact that the nonlinear narrative aspect is not totally coherent.
It is also the case that Black Polder is more genuinely exploratory—it is more extended—and it seems to give back more to the explorer than is the case in Too Much Night. The objects also, metaphorically, “speak” to each other more consistently than is the case in Too Much Night. Although Black Polder does not make total sense, it offers the viewer more narrative as well as more visual interconnectivity: and this makes it a more engaging installation.
Augé, Marc. 1995. Non-places: introduction to an anthropology of supermodernity. London, New York: Verso.