NYC Summer 2010 Pt. I - Terry Flaxton's In Other People's Skins Installation Plays with the Virtual and the Real

Posted by Billyjam, June 7, 2010 12:43pm | Post a Comment
Terry Flaxton's In Other People's Skins installation (June 2010, NYC)

At last week's opening of In Other People's Skins (IOPS), the unique, hands-on moving images art exhibit at the cathedral of St John Divine in uptown Manhattan, one attendee found himself sub-consciously reaching out to scoop up a spoonful of food from a virtual bowl of rice and veggies. Of course, there was no actual food as he sat at this lively but deceptively surreal dinner party with a dozen other chatty guests! They all appeared seated around the intimate candlelit wooden dinner table as an overhead film projector (with sounds too) flashed filmed images of hands reaching out Terry Flaxtonfor food with chopsticks or spoons & forks in hand, all apparently eating a tasty meal, or rather, one of five meals.

"I shot five different dinner parties from above and I projected those five different dinner parties down onto a table the same size as the original dinner parties' table," IOPS' creator Terry Flaxton told me afterward. "And the intention is that people come in and sit and they touch the art because in modern art you are not allowed to touch, so one of the most important things to me is that people get to touch the art. The irony of it is that it is a completely virtual installation, so you can't touch it but it plays with the virtual and the real."

The installation's name, In Other People's Skins, came about, said Flaxton, "Because all of the projections are life size and you see different color skin tones. You see black skin. You see white skin. You see Asian skin. You see all different kinds and the point is that you can put your hands in others. If you're white you can put your hands in black hands. If you're black you can put your hands in white hands. There's some issue of empathy in there that I was interested in pulling out of the casual visitor."

The IOPS installation, which will show in New York through September 1st, has already been featured in a dozen different cathedrals in such countries as Italy, Malta, Sweden, and the artist's native Britain. It next goes to a cathedral in China. I asked the artist why he always chose cathedrals to exhibit this work. "There's a kind of quietness in a cathedral. It's a place where artists, if they are plugged in, don't have to enter into the standard art space," he replied. "And I have a problem with standard art spaces because it displaces ordinary people from the work. And I wanted to locate the work for ordinary people. And sometimes an audience doesn't go into a standard art gallery situation and it's important to me that people get to place their hands in other peoples' hands. They get to, in some small way, feel what it's like to be in another's skin, born into an otherness."

To create the piece, Flaxton, back in his hometown of Bristol, England, filmed five different dinner parties, with 12 people at each, that included dining on African, Indian, Asian, and Western cuisine. The other dinner party was a 1st century reconstruction. For the actual shoots Flaxton became an outside observer, allowing his guests to simply eat their dinners and chat amongst themselves as they would normally do. He then took this footage, edited it all together, complete with the chatter of the dinner guests, which is replayed softly on overhead speakers, and carefully prepared it for projection back onto a identical size dinner table (the screen, if you will). "I'm shooting a thing and I am projecting that thing back onto itself so it creates a borderline of reality," he said of his approach to the piece and its intended goal. "There's the real thing itself but there's the virtual thing crafted on top. But there is a borderline where people play in between and I like that."
At last week's opening of the installation I noticed how quickly after sitting down at the large dinner table total strangers began interacting with one another. "You get groups of people or even individuals and they sit down at the table and before you know it, they're talking together like they know each other," noted Flaxton of the exhibit everywhere it has shown. "And before you know they are actually talking about quite deep philosophical issues and I like that." Indeed, it appears that the installation is as much a social experiment as an art exhibit.

But as purely an exhibit it seems that Flaxton is trying to push the envelope and change peoples' perception of modern art itself.  "There's not the contemporary curatorial attitude about, you know, the way that modern art works is that it's quite hidden, you've got to burrow into it, you've got to interpret it, you've got to do a load of work. And that comes out of a history that comes from basically the Frankfurt school of 1938, moving across to New York, and European minds meeting American minds. And they set a way of looking at art that the valued interpretation is about text, about language. It's about that stuff," he said.

"What I'm doing, or what I am trying to do, is deal with the issue of entrainment. If you stick two clocks together, two pendulum based clocks together, they will swing and eventually those two clocks will entrain. They will actually physically join together. And I'm interested in the way that people view this kind of art is that they entrain with the artist's intention. If the artist is being real, or trying to be real, then the audience will feel that and that's the sensibility that will be evoked in the work. And that's what I am really trying to do. And that quietness of the cathedral, if you like, enables even though it is the great shock and awe environment, the great Christian shock and awe environment, there's a place where the people really join into the work in a gentle way."  

In Other People's Skins is open to the public for free until September 1st at the cathedral of St John the Divine at Amsterdam and 110th St. New York. More details on the exhibit here.

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Terry Flaxton (1), Interview (341), Nyc Summer 2010 Amoeblog Series Pt. I (1)