Texts concerning Lydia Debeer's work. Writers: Oriol Fontdevila and Frank Lubbers.
Lydia Debeer. The Posthuman Gaze
A platform moves across the river. The viewer waits, literally. In Languor, I merely wait (2016). This is not a metaphor: the camera narrows its focus on the interior of a waiting room. The sun’s glittering moves across the windows as the floating platform advances at a mechanical pace along the bends in the river’s course.
“You see that can? Do you see it? Well, it doesn’t see you!” It was on top of another boat, around 1920, that Jacques Lacan placed the words of one of his friends on a can of sardines that was blinding them with the sun’s reflection that was shining off it. Decades later, however, the psychoanalyst, in his seminar on the gaze, concluded that the can was indeed watching them: “It was looking at me at the level of the point of light”, he said, “the point at which everything that looks at me is situated”.1
Since the golden years of semiotic theory, movies have been seen as a great trick. To talk about the work of Lydia Debeer, it is best to follow Lacan and accept that, in relation to the visual, everything is a trap. As he exemplified with the glittering of the can, vision always has two sides: the subject is never sovereign in its relation to the gaze; on the contrary, it has to be watched and invoked by the Other. It cannot be constituted as a subject unless in the eye of the Other.
Debeer’s river platform is also Lacan’s can: to what degree does that which we see make us? To what degree is that end of the waiting room, which does not even let us observe the surrounding landscape, a point of light, a point of view that reveals us as passengers on a barge, or, in the lack of a barge, of the visual field itself? The ambiguity of representation not only makes evident the media or the filmic device; in this case, it does it through the clear relationship that is established between the screen and the subject: the platform is setting us up as viewers.
The viewer’s blind spot is also the protagonist of The View (2014). In this case, the work is a voyeuristic invitation to contemplate the absurdity of the human body when it is constituted as a subject of the gaze. If, traditionally, lookout points and panoramas open the conquest of the world through the image and therefore allow humans to achieve their sovereignty through vision, in this case, the command of the gaze becomes an impotent demonstration, even a fallacy. Two persons with downcast eyes are the protagonists of the comedy, strolling exhausted from one end to the other of a lookout point that is covered in fog.
The beholder’s stand and body is also the centre in Alexandra (2016). There the subject is a woman who stares towards the horizon from Walden 7, a building located in Barcelona’s outskirts, that remains as one of the final attempts of architecture to align with the social utopias of the 20th Century. The comedy is replaced here with a more elegiac tone, when Debeer’s camera starts to circle around the woman, surrounding her body within such a labyrinthine architecture. A building from which a new kind of community was expected to burst forth has simply become a maze where the subject’s gaze is yet again retained.
In Offing (2015), chance dictates the point of view of the camera, which swings hectically along the horizon line. The horizon is perhaps the greatest metaphor in Western visual culture, the fine line that allowed the construction of the visual field in perspective and therefore organized the gaze both in its spatial and temporal dimensions. The horizon was also inserted into the utopic thought of the twentieth century when it was depicted as the destiny of all peoples. In this case however, the horizon line has been pictured as being aimless, without stability, like a continuously swinging pendulum. Here the landscape, as well as the gaze itself, has become completely de-anthropomorphized; the horizon relinquishes its role of sovereign gaze. Once again, the camera returns to the viewer as a failed attempt to accomplish agency through vision.
The appearance of Debeer’s video works is as austere as it is effective in its results. With no obvious tricks and seemingly without editing, with her camera Debeer tracks a collection of blind spots: those of the camera, but also those of human vision. She thus achieves a gaze that is not even human: it is the gaze of objects, of technology and of architecture, which, not being human, constitute themselves as humans. It is therefore a posthuman gaze, that of matter itself. Matter is in charge of organizing the daily life of the human species, which will never again be able to proclaim itself to be autonomous or omniscient.
(translated from Catalan to English by Rubén Verdu)
written in response to Lydia Debeer’s residency in Hangar(Barcelona), April 2016
↦ Oriol Fontdevilla's website
1 Lacan, Jacques: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book 11. Edited by Jacques-Alain Miller, translated by Alan Sheridan. New York & London: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., pg. 95
Frank Lubbers for the publication The Empty Foxhole, October 2016
Lydia Debeer’s work is often ambiguous. The images she uses evoke a reality that is susceptible to more than one explanation. Her work poses the issue of the reliability of perception and the interpretation of reality. Does reality determine what we perceive, or is it the other way around, and does our perception determine reality? Only through perception and experience (that consists of repeated acts of perception), are we capable of building up a world view that coincides with our intuitions, such as our sense of gravity and balance, the difference between up and down, light and dark, front and back, left, right, space and movement, etc.
Every one of Debeer’s works contains a secret that only allows itself to be unraveled along the way. Her work is apparently simple and usually, it looks as if little or nothing is going on. The image is static and apparently without development. There is no conclusion, solution, release, and there is no good or bad ending. Every work by Debeer can be seen as a closed circle. Ending and beginning pass into one another, unnoticed, like an endless repetition of the same pattern. And yet nothing stays the same, because the viewer of the work sets out to look for something to hold onto, for hidden meanings, for the significance of what has been seen. The viewer recreates the work in the context of his own experience and the work obtains — as a new experience — a place in the viewer’s worldview. As such the continuous repetition of the same does not equal a predictable future, but it can signify an enrichment of the viewer’s own development.
The briefly sketched theoretical attributes of Lydia Debeer’s oeuvre can best be annotated based on a number of concrete examples. The scenes in the video film The Undertaker (2014) are like riddles: they are unreal and intriguing. Initially, you think you are in a machine plant. After having climbed up some stairs you arrive on a floor higher in an unwelcoming living room. In the following location, you have the impression you have ended up in a church. Slowly you can connect up the various places and it dawns on you that you are in a crematorium. The way in which the spaces have been successively brought into view — like a journey through the building — is particularly effective. The actions of the man who is being followed by the camera betray little about the nature of his activity. The building plays the leading role and the successive spaces have been recorded in an oppressive manner, with little light, making it seem as if the image is black and white, reinforcing the solemn atmosphere of the scene. The musical accompaniment — especially the sound of the double bass — adds a barely perceptible, yet powerful dimension to the image. The movement of the camera through the building is careful and its direction is compelling. The opening shot, in which the man comes walking towards you, and the final shot, whereby he is moving away from you, looks like the closing of a circle.
The work The View, of 2014, together with The Undertaker, forms an almost contrapuntal pair. In The View, everything is clear, spatially open, instead of being dark, oppressive, and closed, but at the same time the space here is just as geometrically architectonic as in
The Undertaker. Here, too, all manner of associations arise, such as for example the 19th century panorama, or the film The Truman Show, which both impart a certain unreality, however much they wish to portray reality in a faithful manner. The accidental presence of two people in the image acts as a painterly repoussoir that increases the sense of space and depth in the image. Just as the building plays the leading role in The Undertaker, in The View the wall is the protagonist. The people who are present by chance, who stand leaning over it and gaze off into the distance, are merely the confirmation of this. They see what we cannot see. Nothing changes in this work, and because there is almost nothing to see, the eye looks for distractions. The grid of a drain, an irregularity in the paving, some grass that has nestled itself between the stones, maybe a seagull that passes through the image. The view of both people who gaze into the distance stays hidden from us, and the title of the work refers more to the action of looking than to the view itself.
In languor, I merely wait (2016) is a good example of the estrangement that Debeer’s work often evokes. The image consists of the interior of a narrow, elongated waiting room with several blue plastic chairs and big windows all around. Because of the bright daylight it takes a moment before you can discern that there are parked cars on the right and that a body of water stretches out to the left. It takes longer to discover that the waiting room has set into motion. The image in the windows to the right barely changes and on the left only a subtle shifting of the horizon is visible. The sensation of movement is mainly caused by the changing patches of sunlight on the waiting room’s walls, which is not moving itself, but appears to be moving because of the minimal change in the surroundings. Do we see the movement of the surroundings from a still-standing frame of reference — the waiting room — or do we see a stationary environment — the landscape — from the point of view of a moving system? Movement is always relative to something else, that can itself also be moving. Because the stationary waiting room in the film is positioned on a sailing ferry, it looks as if the surroundings are moving, whereas the to and fro of a ferry illustrates the cyclical repetition of the same over and over again that is however also different every time.
The panoramic video projection Offing of 2016 gives an oppressive sense of space, as if you were looking through a narrow, elongated split at reality (the projection screen measures 70 by 400 cm). The camera randomly strays through a dune landscape and loses itself now and then in the pale blue of the sky, or that of the sea, it isn’t always clear. In an endless movement proximity and distance oscillate. They incessantly change position and meaning, without ever offering the eye anything to hold onto. The horizon, as a barely perceptible division between pale blue and an even paler blue, shows a perspective that is continuously yielding. The only thing that the horizon has to offer us, are the ever-changing views. This uncertain and ambiguous relationship between the perceiver and the perceived, between the reality and our imagination of that reality, forms a constant and fascinating factor in the work of Lydia Debeer