The Canadian Art Database

Arni Runar Haraldsson

Simulacrum & Sons: Phillip McCrum
The Or Gallery, Vancouver

C Magazine #10, Summer 1986.
[ 1,689 words ]

The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth — it is the truth that conceals that there is none. The simulacrum is true.
 — Ecclesiastes

The word simulacrum, strangely enough, appears to have performed the simulacrum of its own meaning: as a current, all-pervasive word it has actually been around for some time, but submerged under the guise of other, less all-encompassing words, i.e. phantasm, mask, shadow, likeness, ghost, disguise, copy, etc. Its current usage stems, in part, from Plato's description of art as imitation in 'The Republic'; it is also at the heart of Nietzsche's radicalization and reinterpretation of the world as fable — his determination to 'overthrow' the Platonic hierarchy. Today, in the writings of Gilles Delueze, Jean Baudrillard, and Jean-François Lyotard, the word simulacrum has undergone an extensive modification; ultimately it has come to serve as an apt description of the present state of a world at the end of its history.

The concept of imitation is thus double: on the one hand, there is the Platonic notion of the validity of the mimetic copy as being established by its truth of correspondence to what it copies (the world as icon); the present notion, on the other hand, would have it that the above definition is irrelevant, whereby all authenticity, creativity and origin is subject to the interiorized dissimilarity of the other originality as the disguised appropriation of another appropriation, ad infinitum (the world as simulacra).

Phillip McCrum's installation, Simulacrum, successfully intertwines this dualism by concentrating on the codification and dissemination of gestures — both within and outside a gallery context. Simulacrum, it should be said, is also a play on the artist's name: Mc-Crum deflates the end of his own proper name (Crum) and adds it to the end of a noun (simulaCRUM) — a Joycean strategy defined as antonomasia. McCrum not only derives pleasure from this play, but highlights an etymological simulacrum: the principle at work here involves rhyme, being the general law of textual effects — the folding-together of a resemblance and a difference. Resemblance and difference are also at the essence of the meaning of the word simulacrum.

Viewed from outside through the large picture-frame window that makes up the fourth (invisible) wall of the Or Gallery, are six black cards with white painted numbers, reading (left to right) from one to six, arranged in a line across the window. Inside the space is a green-patterned, three-sided screen facing the window, opened up to stretch from one wall to the other. The middle screen has three oval-shaped openings designed for peering through. On the floor are six rectangular platforms rising up a few inches above the floor, arranged in rows of two and numbered, once again, from one to six. On the back wall, opposite the window, is another black card listing six physical gestures, or states of being: 1) Meditation, 2) Terror, 3) Disdain, 4) Remorse, 5) Secrecy, and 6) Horror. Through the oval openings on the middle screen may be seen six faded colour photographs (exposed black leader on either side of each image acts as a frame). They depict the artist wearing only a dress, resembling a Greek tragedian performing the above mentioned gestures. Each photograph is mounted against the same black card whose reversed side (seen from outside) carries a number corresponding to the list of gestures on the back wall. Upon first impression, the overall presentation appears cryptic in its formality and eccentricity.

The disguise McCrum assumes, and the gestures he portrays, derive from classical, pre-Stanislavsky (therefore pre-Modernist) stage gestures, reminiscent of the silent film era. (In fact, McCrum modeled his gestures after a series of photographs appearing in an acting textbook dating from 1895). McCrum's mimicking of the past portrayals of various states of being, thus emphasizes the melodramatic, romantic, and external (physically visible) elements intrinsic to such past portrayals. This is, of course, in direct contrast to the more subtle and refined Modernist concentration on internal character development, as exemplified by Stanislavsky's Method. To be sure, this re-enactment of what may be termed — in its truest sense — a language communicated by the body has, in the present, been made obsolete by techniques of psychology and sublimation; techniques most often visible (or in-visible) in the advertising industry's commoditization of style — the application of an internal writing to be read, not on the body, but rather in a type of 'look' that animates from within.

What differentiates these two approaches of signalling by gesture — dismissing the obvious external / internal dichotomy — is that one is said to be felt whereas the other is seen, one assumed to be 'true to life' and the other not. Yet, such a ready formula contradicts itself, for both approaches are inevitably techniques of illusion; they fall within the realm of the simulacrum.

McCrum practises a combination of base laughter and irony by his doubling naïveté and sophistication — strategies akin to Brechtian distancing techniques. The poverty of materials applied add up to a crude presentation that can, therefore, only undermine any claim to seriousness. The strategies he employs place the viewer within the context of the space itself, whereby any reference to an 'outside' is ruptured as a result of the viewer being forced to acknowledge him / herself in the act of looking.

McCrum achieves this, in part, by constructing a double frame that frames the viewer. For example, the three oval openings framed by the green-patterned screen, and the black leader framing each image, together contribute to a minor obstruction that disrupts passive looking, so that looking becomes a self-conscious act. Also, in order to peer through the oval opening, the viewer must accommodate that opening by bending down slightly, just enough to place him / her in a somewhat peculiar position. The viewer, caught in the act from behind, thereby, becomes the object of an amused chuckle in the eyes of another observer.

The screen is reminiscent of the Victorian dressing-screen, and, with its patterned, velvet covering, it is suggestive of a codified environment. It functions also to keep the viewer at a distance, like those glass casings one comes across in the grand museums that serve to protect a priceless work from clumsy hands, or perhaps the destructive tendencies of a violent viewer. Only, in this instance, the imposed distance is a parody, serving only to separate the penetrating gaze of an idealized viewer from objects so utterly poverty stricken they warrant no price at all. The photographs are so bad that they appear to have been taken with the wrong film. We can only laugh at this harmless poseur.

By extracting the numbers (one to six) that appear on the back of the photographs and repeating them across the floor atop pedestals, McCrum transforms the inside of the gallery into a theatre stage. A theatre stage that invites the spectator, by the lure of a quizzical arrangement of elevated numbers, to partake of the spectacle, to mimic it, to trivialize, or challenge it. One need not necessarily participate in the play by taking a position atop the pedestal, for it is evident that McCrum's simulacrum is activated by its mere acknowledgement. Prior to even entering the space, the viewer has always already submitted to the simulacrum, is enveloped within it. The simulacrum is not the falseness of McCrum's gesturing, or its image, but rather it is all images, it is the very exhibition space itself, and all that acts upon us.

Thus, there occurs a shift in emphasis from the depiction of exaggerated gestures to the reality of the scene itself as it is taking place within the space, whereby one repeats the other, and extends out to point to its beyond — from the inside to the outside, from passive looking and laughing at what upon first impression appears as naive, to the self-conscious realization of being looked and laughed at from afar, from judging to being judged, from observing to being observed.

The gallery partakes of the simulacrum in that it is the backdrop that otherwise goes unnoticed as an essential ingredient to the setting up of a grand illusion. The gallery, as such, also induces in us the compulsion to animate (often without knowing) our own simulacrum, as we submit to the repetition and codification of an all-pervasive resemblance — our own individual gesturing, or sense of being cultured, of being in the know, knowing that the wool won't be pulled over our eyes. Always, we are aware that what is on display, in relation to everything else, too, is a sort of game. But it is a game with metaphorical implications suggesting, as it does, that everything else, too, is a sort of game. Therefore, we cannot dismiss, nor take too seriously, that which is on display (including ourselves), lest we ruin the possibility of blissful play intertwined within an often too serious reality.

All this we display as something that we are aware of, whether we know it or not. In the end result, it is the look of things that have the last word, and so the benefit of doubt goes to the work. This, too, we are aware of while looking on at the display putting us on display, forcing us to confront its silence(s), whereby we — in turn — have to listen to the false animator (simulacrum) within us, just in case the Other that is us should happen to ask (heaven forbid), 'What's it really all about?...Well, it's about ourselves as the copy of a copy thrice removed from reality, the ideal, and from God. It's about ourselves living an aesthetic existence. It's about our having become the simulacrum. In a way, I guess it's really about everything and nothing.' So says the 'we' that looks on and writes while pretending to know, pretending to be me, you, us, I and Phillip McCrum.

C Magazine #10, Summer 1986.

Text: © Arni Runar Haraldsson. All rights reserved.

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