In recent years, there has been a transformation in the relationship between the artist and the exhibition space, a space that may serve as a narrative framework, material, motif, or subject — an entire world to be reinterpreted. Assuming the role of curator, the artist takes over the site in order to present broader artistic proposals that overstep the boundaries of artwork as installation and open up a different aesthetic and experiential space, within which the visitor is an active part of the envisioned experience. Like the polyphonic novel analyzed by Bakhtin,1 1 - Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, trans. Caryl Emerson (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 1984). these dialogic works are inhabited by plural voices: that of the creator, of course, but also those of the people who receive them. The exhibition space is thus understood as an entirely separate realm, in which all of the subjects who experience it are invested.
For instance, in 2013 Philippe Parreno integrated his past and current works into the remarkable space of the Palais de Tokyo in Paris to offer a strange museum-like choreography within the building’s monumental architecture. Taking Baudelaire’s words, “Anywhere, Anywhere, Out of the World,”2 2 - See Charles Baudelaire, Le Spleen de Paris, Petits poèmes en prose (Paris: Gallimard, 2006), 220. as the title for his exhibition, Parreno imbued his work with the enduring oneiric, virtual dimension valued by the poet and unique to this type of exhibition-artwork. In the same year, also in the context of a retrospective exhibition, Pierre Huyghe imagined a Centre Pompidou populated by different forms of life with which visitors would have to cohabit. At MoMA PS1 in New York, two years later, Samara Golden created The Flat Side of the Knife, an immersive installation that combined material and illusory spaces to provide access to further layers of consciousness.
Today, exhibitions emblematic of this emerging trend fill the international art landscape, challenging those who see and experience them. Yet what do these new exhibition formats propose by pushing beyond the limits of the artwork and the artist’s role in this manner? From partner to co-creator, what role does the visitor play in the construction of the artistic proposition? Are the immersive experience, a sense of strangeness, the waking dream, and an appeal to the unconscious the definitive driving forces behind these creations? With this essay, these questions are explored through Canadian artist David Hoffos’s exhibition Scenes from the House Dream. Freud’s reflections on dreams and the uncanny provide the keys for this analysis.
David Hoffos’s Dream World
Presented at MOCCA in Toronto in 2010, Scenes from the House Dream presaged the new trend of filling the entire exhibition space to offer visitors an unprecedented immersive experience. Here, the artist invites us to visit a dream. This dream, experienced by many, takes place in a labyrinth of rooms in a large house where, as we search for an exit, we witness strange, sometimes frightening scenes. The exhibition space is melded with this oneiric world, offering a sense of harrowing disorientation, blurring the reference points that distinguish the known from the unknown, the self from the other, the artwork from life. Thus, the interpretive quest that impels the visitor traces not only the meaning of the artwork but also the course of the exhibition — a performative space in which, as in a dream, figuration and projection allow us to explore our fears and unconscious desires.
Entering the gallery, visitors are plunged into darkness. This lends coherence and unity to the experience by imposing a shared apprehension of the multimedia installations set out in the room. All are original artworks, created from an assemblage of low-tech video techniques produced between 2003 and 2008. They take the form of dioramas, meticulously fabricated miniature stage sets, onto which ghostly characters are projected via a video device involving television sets and mirrors. The scenes are presented as sequences of daily life: a teenager skateboarding down a suburban street, a woman getting dressed in her hotel room, fireworks exploding in an urban sky, and so on. Yet, the ambience is unsettling; a threat seems to hover over these familiar scenes, as though something were about to happen. Another type of installation also occupies the room: life-size holographic human figures are projected onto panels matching the shape of their silhouettes. Forsaken and melancholy, these spectral figures create a sense of anxious doubt among visitors: are these other visitors, strolling just as we are in the gallery, flesh-and-blood actors or simply images floating on the surface of things? The figures are both fascinating and repellent, and their ghostly realism, provoking discomfort, accentuates our sense of disorientation. Called upon to make sense of the fragmented stories presented to us, we seek reference points in our own dreams, our memories and terrors, gradually blending them with the scenery created by the artist.
Toward the end of our visit, we arrive in front of a life-size projection called Carolina. Hidden behind the corner of a wall, a young woman observes us, just as we observe the figures in the exhibition. The roles are inverted: the observers are observed. Farther on, the exhibition’s final piece literally takes us into the dream, with a device made of cameras and mirrors that projects our image into the diorama. We realize that we are the protagonists in the dream, playing, in spite of ourselves, the starring role in the scenes imagined by the artist.
The Exhibition as Oneiric Scene: Aesthetic Play and Performative Space
The mirror play set up by Hoffos at the end of the exhibition allows for a reflection on the essential role played by the receiver of the artwork. As philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer notes, all artworks must be apprehended by a receiver for their meaning to be actualized. This touches on the private meaning of the notion of representation: a play must be seen, a melody heard, or a text read for the meaning that sleeps within each of them to be awoken. Thus, the exhibition as medium, must be walked through, explored, and experienced for an interpretation of it to emerge. What is striking in Scenes from the House Dream is that the exhibition’s mise en scène takes a hold of visitors, who gradually realize that they are both the receiver and the actor.
Visitors participate in the creation of the artwork in spite of themselves. In this sense, the artwork corresponds nicely with Gadamer’s concept of the game. Gadamer posits that playing always means being played by the game: “The game masters the players.”3 3 - Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald Marshall (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013), 111.) By participating in and identifying with the aesthetic game in Scenes from the House Dream, we find not only ourselves represented in the artwork — thanks to the mirrors and the reflections that project our image — but also our expectations, anxieties, and personal references. We see ourselves “playing” the exhibition as we make our way through it. The exhibition space thus becomes a performative space, to the extent that the play of visitors enables the work to be experienced as a process of self-knowledge.
This aesthetic game, anchored in the oneiric metaphor, broadens the definition of the exhibition to include the visitors’ exploratory experiences. In The Interpretation of Dreams,4 4 - Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, trans. and ed. James Strachey (New York: Basic Books, 1955). Freud emphasizes the distinction between the manifest content and the latent content of dreams. Dreams, he posits, must be analyzed by interpreting not what is manifested — images, objects, actions — but “dream-thoughts,” the unconscious ideas that give form and meaning to the manifested content. By making visitors into actors in the dreams that he stages, Hoffos suggests that the true content of the exhibition is not the individual works — the dioramas and projections — but the latent content of thoughts and emotions that visitors project onto them in the interpretive quest that guides their course. Hoffos’s video projections also mimic visitors’ private projections: as we decode the exhibition, we in fact explore our own buried anxieties.
The Uncanny: Self-Knowledge through the Double
The mediating force of Scenes from the House Dream is also based on the general aesthetic employed, which is related to anxiety (angoisse)5 5 - See Benjamin Delmotte, Esthétique de l’angoisse, Le memento mori comme thème esthétique (Paris: PUF, 2010). or, more precisely, “the uncanny” (das Unheimliche). In Freud’s view, the Unheimlich is “that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar,”6 6 - Sigmund Freud, “The Uncanny”, in the Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. 17, translation supervised by James Strachey with Anna Freud (London: Hogarth Press, 1953 – 74), 219. and it occurs when “the distinction between imagination and reality is effaced, as when something that we have hitherto regarded as imaginary appears before us in reality.”7 7 - Ibid., 243. He employs the figure of the double, so dear to the romantics, to illustrate this sentiment. In a footnote to his famous essay,8 8 - Ibid., 247, n. 1. he relates an unusual experience: while he was travelling on a train, the door to his compartment opened on a disoriented old man, who came toward him. As he was preparing to speak to the stranger, Freud realized that this man was in fact his own image, reflected in a mirror on the back of the door. The incident unsettled him so much that he was to associate this episode with the uncanny.
By presenting familiar yet enigmatic sets and by breathing life into ghostly figures so realistic that they are confused with other visitors, Hoffos uses the uncanny to provoke us and bring our unconscious fears to the surface. The final diorama in Scenes from the House Dream refers to Freud’s train episode: we first see the character in the diorama as if it weren’t us but someone else, one of the ghosts that we have encountered up to now and are beginning to get used to. The double is a being that we think is different: old and disoriented in Freud’s case; lost, lonely, and ghostly in the case of Hoffos’s visitor. As we recognize ourselves in what we had considered to be the other, we are overtaken by the sense of the uncanny. The figure of the double enables Hoffos to blur the boundaries between art and subjective experience. It places anxiety at the core of the receptive experience and treats the exhibition space as an oneiric scene that opens up a breach toward the depths of our unconscious.
In short, the potential for mediation within the aesthetic experience of Scenes from the House Dream, also present in the exhibitions orchestrated by Parreno, Huyghe, and Golden mentioned above, is based on their capacity to expose visitors to the role that they play in revealing the meaning of the artwork. Playing with the Freudian conception of the dream, these exhibition-artworks invite us to consider the exhibition as a space of exploration in itself, which, like the dream, uses the imagination to reveal fears and unconscious desires. By challenging visitors and making them, sometimes in spite of themselves, partners in the apparatus, these artists transform receivers into co-creators, subjects that set the exhibition into motion. What is certain is that in using these exhibition-artworks to break through the boundaries separating the artwork, the retrospective format, and the artist’s and museum’s roles, artists transform the exhibition space into a performative space in which visitors discover themselves — in the mirroring reflections of reflective surfaces — as other than themselves.
Translated from the French by Käthe Roth