Several years ago Gallery 400 at the University of Illinois, Chicago re-staged the 1976 work Rayna by James Turrell. This installation consists of a dimly lit room with a rectangular window opening onto another room, the careful crafting of the opening and contrast of the lighting in the two rooms creating the illusion of a large monochrome canvas. I had seen images of similar Turrell works, but never in person, and I dragged my partner along to the exhibition. We spent ten minutes in the space, enjoying the subtle perceptual shifts occurring as our eyes adjusted to the dim light. Then, wanting to know exactly how the edge of the aperture was constructed, I reached through it to feel the back of the wall. My partner let out a sound of utter surprise.
I had assumed that I’d told her what we were going to see, that I’d told her who Turrell was and what kind of work he made, but I hadn’t. In not knowing these things ahead of time she had an experience I envy – a full and firsthand experience of Turrell’s work that can never be had by any of us who arrive already knowing what we will see.
How do we point out, respond to, write about the things we encounter in the world whose power lives largely in existing between definitions? How do I point you in a direction without telling you what you will see there? Are there forms of critical response that respect the confusion a work produces and that refuse to kill that confusion by a too-precise naming?
In mid April, I noticed that the Zeitgeist Gallery space in my old Inman Square neighborhood appeared to have been taken over by a clothing boutique. Out front was a mannequin with a bright orange tailored dress, and inside on two garment racks along the wall were a minimal selection of other pieces, in orange, pale yellow, tan. Perhaps the recent renovation of a neighboring storefront led me to mistakenly assume that this space too was being colonized by some seller of fashionable goods. In any case, it took almost two weeks of walking by before I wandered in.
I looked through the racks of clothing – a riding jacket made of raincoat material, the orange dress I’d seen on the mannequin – also of a waterproof material and labeled rain dress, blue footy pants like kids’ pajamas – of tarp-blue waterproof material and claiming to be useful in preventing trench foot.
A few drawings on the wall, a short-sleeved t-shirt printed with a guide to edible seaweeds and invertebrates, a pamphlet:
Climate Change: Be Prepared
Catalog of Information and Supplies
Inside that catalog a brief letter to the customer from Jane Van Cleef, proprietor of the Climate Change Preparedness Center:
. . . we at CCPC offer unisex clothing, home furnishings, and accessories to aid in the physical and psychological preparation for a balmier, more water-logged lifestyle.
Further into the catalog are descriptions of each garment, as well as handy instructions on how to craft a fishing net by cutting up plastic grocery bags, and a suggestion from the Red Cross that citizens wading after a flood wear sturdy shoes to avoid the most common post-flood injury: cut feet.
A few other people wandered in while I was in the Center. One person asked whether this was a designer sample sale, to which the woman attending the space replied, “You could think of it as a kind of sample sale.” Her answers to other questions, including my own, as to the nature of this Center were carefully considered – never was the thing named as anything other than itself.
Van Cleef’s Climate Change Preparedness Center is very much in the spirit of recent projects such as J. Morgan Puett and Iain Kerr’s multi-site that word which means smuggling across borders, inc. which offers new forms of sartorial encounter, consumer involvement, and playfully, elegantly constructed algorithms of production and sale. In both cases we are presented with a quasi-consumer encounter that refuses to behave the way we expect it to and that uses our desires – for fashion, for art, for experience – to reorganize our expectations of how those desires will be satisfied. It is rare and thrilling to find one’s thinking being tweaked so masterfully.
Having spent the month of April in its Inman Square location, the Center has moved for the month of May into a new location on the third floor of 24 Quincy Street in Cambridge, where it will be open Monday - Friday 10 - 6, through June 8th. Compared to its storefront incarnation, the institutional context of this second location inevitably weighs the project down, makes it easier to name with certainty, and reduces its mystery.
Not that this will stop me from buying myself the #1201 riding jacket, women’s size L, in sand colored cotton sheeting with taped seams for increased water resistance, $39.50, and the matching #1207 rain skirt, unisex size L, $25.99.
Image found at The Harvard University Gazette.