Experiencing ontological certainty
For the I: I: I: I show at the Off the Kerb Gallery in Melbourne, Oliver Parzer exhibits a minimal and yet analytic, inquisitive and complex piece. The Berlin-based artist asks the visitor to take an effective part in his installation which functions as a dispositive of sense only through people’s physical engagement.
The visitor is in fact asked to climb a ladder with a stereoscope at the top of it; while looking through the optical device the viewer sees two different sentences blended in one, You are alive/You are alone. The stereoscope’s lens give a three-dimensional impression for which the two statements are seen together; moreover, what the viewer actually recognizes is also affected by his own physical arrangement as he might have a dominant eye.
While looking through the technical device, visitors can also see their reflection on the tiny mirror on the stereoscope’s surface and in so doing are provided with another thinking tool.
Parzer encourages the visitor to take an active role and to contribute to the artwork’s factual realisation: the viewer needs to face the verticality of the ladder and use the technical prop in order to interpret the installation. While the stereoscope represents a prosthesis device for the human eye and a way to extend the sight, the stairs clearly symbolize the euphoria of vertigo as well as the possibility of risk and danger. Thus, the installation reproduces a well-known feeling that, if experienced in the meta-temporal artistic dimension, does favour a philosophical investigation.
As a functional and perhaps dangerous object that can trigger emotions, the ladder represents a metaphor of life itself. The visitor has to join in the installation and climb the stairs in order to familiarize with and eventually be part of the artistic event. An external observation is not enough if the goal is to identify the sense of Parzer’s piece; visitors need to fully engage with it and take an empirical action. They are asked to leave their external location and get into the artwork; from an inside perspective, they literally end up living within the installation and engaging with both the ladder and the stereoscope.
In life, intentions aren’t enough to truly experience the real; the definitive value of resolutions is empirically confirmed only through facts and matters.
Similarly in Parzer’s work, visitors need to climb the ladder accepting the risk of falling, the fear of vertigo and the uncertainty of the scenario they will see from the top of the stairs. They know by doing what still remains mysterious and vague by thinking.
Here in Parzer’s installation, contemplation and action blend into one; You Are appears to be a reflective and thought-provoking piece not just as it allows a pensive attitude, but also because it activates visitors’ movement. In other words, only the interaction of theory and practice gives birth to a more complete and satisfying territory of analysis.
Moreover, the slowness with which visitors typically climb the stairs facilitates entering the artistic event’s atmosphere; in slow motion everything is clearer, carefully comprehended without the typical hurry of the everyday.
As in other Parzer works, here the minimal props contribute to create a space for no distraction where the visitor can find a locus of personal reflection. You are, that’s the artwork’s title, seems to make a clear distinction between the more summary act of observing and the rather analytical act of seeing. While staring at the ladder trying to get an overall picture of the artwork, the visitor observes the installation from the outside, guessing and making assumptions. At a later stage, once taken the physical action of climbing the ladder, he finds himself within the artwork, and eventually makes a choice of belief.
Are you alive or alone? What do these existential conditions mean? Are they opposite, complementary or synonyms? As in a suspension of judgement, Parzer leaves these questions open to the viewer’s viewpoint. The words alive and alone in the stereoscope are physical manifestations of human values; they in fact mirror a Weltanschauung, a way of looking at the world. On the one hand, by taking action and climbing the ladder, the viewer feels alive galvanized by his own courage; on the other hand, while realizing the solitude of his condition at the top of the stairs, he might feel alone, with no one to share any enthusiasm, excitement, fear, or philosophical queries with. In so doing, this moment brings a solitary awareness, which tells a lot of the human condition.
Visitors might feel bewilder at first sight. A close and attentive gaze is needed to get the sense of the installation, which takes time and commitment to be fully understood.
The sentences in the stereoscope are two distinct phrases, blended in one only through the optical device that alters items’ position and creates a sui generis depth.
You are alive/You are alone come separately, and appear together only later through the effect of the stereoscope; originally they represent two distinctive domains while, with the help of the eye’s corrective, they seem as one phrase.
Only two letters separate alive and alone, but sometimes they might feel as two opposite human conditions; their disjunction conveys a sense of dualism, which characterizes unsolvable antinomies. People tend to feel alive when surrounded by companions, and vitality and enthusiasm seem possible only when feelings are shareable.
However, at a closer gaze, we realize that the dualism between alive and alone is only apparent, and to feel alive doesn’t exclude a sense of solitude. Often in life great moments of self-awareness take place when people reflect in private; therefore alive and alone might be complementary attributes, which together go to constitute experience and epitomize our way of being in the world.
As to confirm the ambiguity of such a tricky and misleading dualism, Parzer decides to blend together the two statements and make alive and alone interacting with each other. At the end, it’s all up to viewers’ perception and belief.
Although the artist doesn’t want to persuade visitors and rather leaves them free to use their personal tools of judgement, Parzer makes a firm statement, which sounds like an axiomatic truth. He does it by choosing that particular title: You Are. While alive and alone represent the mutable attributes of our human condition depending on time, perception, feelings and attitudes, You Are is the statement’s kernel, which never changes and rather continuously manifests itself. The viewer is encouraged to experience the artwork as an ontological certainty, a both physical and intellectual state of being that is hardly debatable. You are, no matter any temporary solitudes, feelings of omnipotence, or vertigos.
Parzer’s work helps the viewer in this recognition; it encourages visitors to challenge the static condition of their bodies as well as their minds. The action of climbing the ladder creates a physical movement of thoughts, and looking through the stereoscope hints at existential conditions, which might develop into judgements and choices. Both the verticality of the stairs and the optical device push the visitor’s preconception and engage him in a new experience. By altering the viewer’s gaze and perception, You are confirms an unquestionable state of the being; taking action, climbing the ladder, looking through the stereoscope and making a choice of judgement are all activities which imply an existing and living presence. Backlash excluded, You Are appears as a matter of fact, an empirical manifestation of ourselves.
Text by Elena Dolcini
Image courtesy Nikki Lam / Oliver Parzer