Two identical, clinical, white, sensory deprivation tanks occupy the central area of the exhibition venue. Behind, twin showers have been installed, each equipped with towels, shampoo and other amenities to enable participants to bathe both before and after entering the saline solution in which they will lie suspended for some ninety minutes. In addition, two video monitors hang high in the corners of the changing room cubicles. Dramatic cloudscapes criss-cross their screens. Oneiric, mesmerizing, these skies are actually more ominous than they may appear to the untutored eye for their fast-paced activity is due to wind sheer, itself a prelude of calamitous meteorological activity. That the clouds are travelling back and forward across the Mexican-American border, (for the time lapse looped footage has in part been reversed) cannot be perceived, though, once known, it proves critical information that conditions the spectator’s apprehension of The El Niño Effect. The accompanying soundtrack is also misleading, in that what initially sounds like new age music, an electronic adaptation of the lambent sounds of a summer rainshower, is a blast from a 9mm gunshot electronically manipulated to simulate a torrential down-pour. If, again, such information can only be acquired extraneously rather than directly intuited through the senses, this is not necessarily the undermining limitation normally entailed by recourse to material ancillary to the artwork proper. For it contributes to the overriding question concerning the autonomy of a work of art and its relation to the framing institution.
Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle’s highly charged, theatrical situation offers the viewer a singular experience that, paradoxically, is never permitted to be just that—singular. Solitary, sequestered, floating in the dark in a sensory deprivation unit, the visitor to this installation should not, in fact, be alone, but one half of a pair of concurrent participants. For part of the requirement, and ritual, of engaging with this work is to undertake it with a partner, ideally, an intimate partner: husband or wife, lover or close friend.
Isolated in the anechoic tank, the body is cocooned, indeed cocooned in such an extreme manner that no contact, external sounds, or sensations from beyond, penetrate the chamber. The teasing question thus arises as to why the doubling; why two tanks, two videos, two simultaneous participants, rather, more specifically, why two intimately connected participants? Will this prove so exceptional that it can only be verified and consolidated by discussing it with a consort who has undergone a like experience? And even were this so, why the stress on the simultaneity of these experiences? Is the isolation, or perhaps the fear attendant on such solitariness, countered by an awarness that a beloved is undergoing a dual experience at the same moment? Is communion between two intimates enhanced, stimulated, facilitated, by the segregation of each, and the elimination of all else?
While undergoing the experience, consciousness of the other depends on memory, on prior knowledge, direct contact being precluded. Thus Manglano-Ovalle at once foregrounds the notion of a mutual experience and prevents it from occurring in real time; it can only be shared retrospectively, in recollection. While his is not a didactic practice, one of its hallmarks is its acute attention to the presuppositions and preconditions that subtend and govern, frame and contextualize the contemporary work of art. On a number of previous occasions Manglano-Ovalle has worked collectively and collaboratively on projects that intervened directly with the socio-cultural matrix in which they were realized. Amongst the most notable of these was a large-scale video piece for Culture in Action, presented in Chicago in 1995, which engaged members of rival youth gangs in a deprived neighbourhood on a joint evocation and definition of their community.
In The El Niño Effect this young American artist starts from an antithetical position: from the white cube; the (ostensibly) autonomous art object—here reminiscent of a minimalist sculpture or a Jeff Koons ready-made; and the expectant spectator, primed for contemplative scrutiny. Playing on notions such as meditation, withdrawal, immersion, solipsism, autonomy, communion, and conjuring what could be described as a transfiguring experience, he speaks to the codes, the conventions, and the constraints that accompany and contextualize the contemporary work of art in its normative conditions, while simultaneously alerting the spectator to the ways in which crucial and critical information is garnered extraneously, outside the parameters of the strictly sensory and the sensual. The latter is neither a necessary nor a sufficient conduit for the former; to ignore, discount, or deny the social is to misconstrue the circumstances in which the work of art is situated.
If immersion in the tank literally induces a sterile situation, given its purity, privilege and perfection, it also offers ideal conditions, unequalled possibilities, for reverie, fantasy, speculation, in short, for the play of the imagination. A sanctuary that seems divested of spatial and temporal coordinates, it promises a release from the temporally specific and the socio-culturally determined. It becomes a space that is real and not real at the same time, an extra-ordinary situation whose very ambiguity makes it an exemplary site for the realization of the otherwise “impossible.” If this is posited as a viable or operative model, an analogue, for the experience embodied in confronting a contemporary work of art, then it depends on a situation that is not only totally artificial and necessarily fleeting, but inherently flawed, circumscribed, deprived.
Manglano-Ovalle reverses the normative conditions subtending the art work—an autonomous aesthetic creation to be perused by the lone spectator—by creating an installation that is functional, instrumental, collective and performative. Through the process of showering, floating and reshowering, and of moving from one zone to another, from the social to the solipsistic, and from interaction to its contrary, withdrawal, the visitor engages in a parallel set of actions to those enacted by the weather on the screens, and thereby partakes in the larger thematics of boundaries, geopolitics and segregation. The instability and permeability of borders, whether those of skin, of private space or of the nation state, are exposed, as is the escapism implicit in certain social, political and aesthetic ideals. In multiple, complex, and contradictory ways the artificial bifurcation between public and private, individual and collective, is highlighted as Manglano-Ovalle repositions the solitary observer of the hermetic artifact in the public arena in which communication takes place and in the social matrix through which meaning is constructed. The irony implicit in his wry characterization of this quasi-spa as a “public service project” should not overshadow recognition of its centrality to his abiding preoccupations.
Lynne Cooke is the curator of Dia Center for the Arts in New York.