Surprising sound of laughter at the Tate
Graham Gussin: 'Any Object in the Universe' & 'Drawings of Nothing and Nowhere' At the Tate Gallery, London SW1 until 10 May
It's rare to come upon a piece of conceptual art which provokes mirth and delight. When laughter is encountered in relation to such works, it is usually dependent upon having got the joke or, in a British setting, on embarrassment. The installation 'Any Object in the Universe' by Graham Gussin (in the Artnow series at the Tate) is neither humorous nor embarrassing, but is greeted by surprised visitors with giggles, guffaws and - surely unique in the Tate's long history - spontaneous tap-dancing.
The work generating these unusual outbursts consists of a roughly 8m- square room with a raised floor deck which falls short of the perimeter, what look like anechoic tiles on the flank walls, a projected still scene of a microphone on a stand in an empty room on the wall facing the entrance and, on the side from which one enters, no more than a slide projector set high in the wall.
If you are lucky, you will find the exhibit empty and will step on to the raised floor to hear the silence broken by the sound of your footfall being relayed back to you from behind the projected image, much amplified and with an artificially prolonged echo. There is no mystery in how this is done; microphones under the suspended floor pick up the clicks and scrapes of shoe leather on plywood and the noise is treated and broadcast, the wall tiles eliminating any doubt that the sound as fed back originates in speakers behind the projection screen. Entering the room and not being tempted to experiment with the system's possibilities is all but inconceivable.
The work is based on one perfectly obvious point which artists labour to remind us of, usually employing a less elegantly spare palette: that viewers of any situation have completely individual experiences of it, not just because of the psychological baggage they bring but simply through their presence in it.
Having involved the viewer physically with such success, Gussin's installation has immediately engaged him/her in the process of completing the piece. Although the image of the microphone on its stand is still, the picture quality, and the screen on which it appears, make it look like a projected video image of an environment which is constantly altered audibly by the intervention of the viewer. The effect is of a continually (but minutely) changing video piece, which can never be the same thing twice to the same person, let alone to different observers.
The small prologue to this exhibition is a set of drawings in ink on tracing paper which shows a series of cuboid objects and rectangular planes in one-point perspective, some of which appear to be hovering motionless, others flashing past. The catalogue for the exhibition points out the similarity between these drawings and the cinema advertising credits for Pearl and Dean, further hinting at the the links between the still image in the main installation and a broader, more common, shared experience of real cinema - conventional moving pictures.
Given that almost all architects have spent time, whether with enthusiasm or under duress, attempting to draw measured perspectives, the effect that altering the distance from the point of observation to the picture plane has on the finished drawing, or re-setting the viewer height, should be obvious to us. But seeing this effect in isolation from architecture is a worthwhile reminder that things do look different from different points of view. The almost constant consumption of two-dimensional images in advertising, cinema, tv and traditional painting can blind one to the fact that there is no absolutely fixed scene behind any of these images, that the specific representation of the scene is all that we are being offered.
To attempt to stimulate a range of readings with such economical materials could be seen as over-ambitious, but the achievement of Gussin's piece is that it does suggest far more than straightforward statement of a primary point - and in an entertaining way that makes one want to stay and think.
Gerry McLean is an architect in London