Tease | interactive boîte d'optique | wood-lens-netbook-sensor-lcd monitor-brass | 2010

 

A Subtle Trap

It’s all about the tease.  At least it is to Christopher Lowther, whose new multimedia installation takes this idea as its central premise.   You see, the tease is all about unrequited desire, of longing for an object in precisely the moment that you can’t have it.  And the power of the act rests with the one doing the teasing, obviously, rather than the one being teased.

Think about it.  Striptease.  Sexual tease.  In each, the frisson comes from expectation, rather than fulfillment.  There’s an expectation, a transference, a shift in the power relationship that all but the most naïve viewers would understand.  Lowther seeks to capitalize on this unexpected revelation.  More significantly, however, he explores the power inherent in compelling an unexpected, unrealized action on the viewer’s behalf.

“I am fascinated by the figure of the spectator, and their negotiation of space while peering,” he explains.  This figure, positioned in space, partially bent over in front of an object, presumably unaware of the enticement he or she is then presenting, allows Lowther to control the experience to some extent.

Certainly the implications of peering, of peeping, are well documented.  Whether through the experience of the boite d’optique, rigorously interrogated in Richard Balzer’s Peepshows: A Visual History, or through analyses of Lowther’s more immediate forebears such as Marcel Duchamp, it is apparent that the surreptitious practice of peeping is both shameful and shaming at the same time.  The difference becomes solely the position of the subject as either viewer or viewed.  

The complexity arises also from the physicality of the box itself.   The mechanism of Tease as an object is obviously fetishistic.  It is, as Lowther explains, “meant to evoke an antiquated, but luxurious piece.”  Lowther’s box is the men’s club, the sauna, the smoking rooms of nineteenth century England, jovial, discreet spaces for private or semi-private experiences.  This is reinforced by the manifestation of two John Singer Sargent portraits, Madame X (or Madame Gatreaux), who looks away from the viewer, and Dr. Pozzi, in Sargent’s Dr. Pozzi at Home, who is almost summoning the viewer deeper into the tease.

The complexity of Tease comes not just from the experience of thwarted desire, from object who is always already moving away from the gaze, but also from the implied space of queer desire created by the physical space itself and by the mannerisms, dress and engagement of the portrait of Dr. Pozzi.  You see, in Tease Madame Gatreaux is looking away, while Dr. Pozzi is looking towards the viewer, away from what is presumably the spectacle of desire.  And it is in this moment that the true complexity of Tease becomes revealed.  Lowther’s suggestion or even sublimation of homosexual desire comes not from the inability to capture the subject, but from the moment, the hesitation, the engagement that is experienced just a little outside the center, a little over, a little unexpected.  Of course, the existence of rumors regarding Sargent’s sexuality, and the physicality and sensuality of the portrait of Dr. Pozzi, only serve to reinforce the subtlety and suggestiveness of the experience.

Tease itself follows a trajectory that Lowther has been exploring in his earlier works.  His fascination (one migh term it an admirable obsession) with cinema has been explored in works such as Rebel Love and Cowboy Cruising.  Now, with the creation of Tease, it is as if Lowther is creating an almost wholly cinematic space, and his subjects are moving from the appropriated to the intimate. 

The box itself stands as both a container for experience and for desire.  One peers, expectantly, into the box.  What one then experiences is, arguably, entirely personal.  For Lowther, the structure itself stands for the cinema.  As he explains, “I can't really describe this feeling that I have about film and the moving image.  I don't know how to articulate that exactly, but it's everything to me.”  This recognition of the transformative space of cinema, of the capacity of the moving image to both reflect an experience and evoke a desire, is emblematic of the moving image itself.  So as the complexity of Tease’s subjects become more apparent – from the position of the viewer to the position of being viewed, bent over the apparatus itself – it becomes a matter of positioning.  One might think here of Marcel Duchamp, speaking of Max Ernst’s obsession with optical devices:  “This both-at-once, this being caught inside the illusion and this looking on nonetheless from without, would, he understood, suit his purposes perfectly.”

This construction suits Lowther’s purposes perfectly too.  The object itself interacts not solely from the monotonous spinning and intermittent revelations of a zootrope.  Instead, technology that the artist has programmed waits for the actions of the viewer.  They come into the sphere of experience, interact with the sensor, create the motion, thwart the desire.  In moving in their opportunities decrease.  In anticipation, their expectations cannot be revealed.  This is the realm of the interactive, but one in which subjectivity and causality are inextricably linked.

“I see loss and desire motivating a lot of my work,” the artist recently remarked.  In Tease it is not as much about loss and desire as about desire unfulfilled.  It is also about a subtle trap.  One might regard this as the trap of desire, or of a trap of self-realization.  Lowther creates an unexpected event when the viewer peeps.  A man, the very opposite of that subject of Duchamps Etant Donnes.  It’s a visual trap.  It exists entirely to make the subject consider their object of desire, and to confront their expectations at precisely the same time.

There it is.  In the room there is a box, and the box has something to reveal.  But what it is may not be evident at first. It’s an enticement, a lure, a trap.  Or maybe, just maybe, it’s just a tease.

Brett M. Levine
May 2010

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Sketch for the boîte d'optique (2009).

The boîte d'optique in progress.

The boîte d'optique in progress.

Finished interior.

Finished interior.

Finished rear interior.

Bi-convex lens.

Looking through the lens.

Finished boîte d'optique.