- Tate Liverpool
‘Empire of fire’ Jamie Isenstein’s in Tate Liverpool is placed in it’s own open plan white room. The piece consists of three parts; as you enter the space seems empty due to the concentrated arrangement of furniture, books and ornaments in the middle of the room on a white plinth that raised the objects about twenty centimeters off the ground. A blurb on the wall allows the viewer to acknowledge the second empire French furniture arranged from a set design from Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1944 play ‘No Exit’. Bedded within the furniture are small liquid burners like the methylated spirit burners in children’s chemistry sets. These sat hidden so only the flame was visible. To the left of that on the wall sat hung an old American style white fire hose with a gold trim which a hand popped out acting as the spout pointing to seemingly nothing but the floor. Prior knowledge of Isenstein’s work tells me that the hand was in fact the artist herself. Isenstein inhabits her work for the duration of the show. On the adjacent wall a framed digital print that had been in a previous solo show at Andre Kreps Gallery titled Snuffer (2008).
The relationship between the artist and the work has always interested me, I wonder if Isenstein intended to reference the art movement Romanticism by being physically present within the work? “The movement validated strong emotion as an authentic source of aesthetical experience placing new emphasis on such emotions as trepidation, horror and terror and awe” [i] the movement legitimised the individual’s imagination creating artistic freedom from the classic notions of the form of art.
In a YouTube interview Isenstein says, “if art is forever, and I’m part of the work then I live forever”[ii] her presence combats of mortality creating a self-portrait without the work being autobiographical. Her hand acting as the nozzle of the fire hose becomes disembodied from her body something that references the horror genre in a humorous Evil Dead 2 manor. I wonder whether this is some clever way that of distracts the viewer from her presence.
“If you count the arms, you’ll see that this hand belongs to no one at all.” [iii]This reiterating my conclusion, that despite her physical presence, she is deliberately avoiding ownership in order for her work to avoid becoming autobiographical. I question if she allows her hand to act as an object therefore using her body as a ready made that blurs that defined line between performance and sculpture.
Adrian Searle questions if the hand really belongs to “artist, Jamie Isenstein, or is there some long-suffering assistant, is hidden behind the wall?” [iv] This toying with ‘is it her or not’ becomes a reference back to a previous solo exhibition ‘Acéphal Magical’ in which an analogy between the artist and the magician is made. This idea of putting all our trust into the magic of a magician yet we know that these are all just tricks and we are being tricked; yet the viewer is happy to forget about that and see it as astonishment. When artist’s become tricksters, does the viewer still put trust in the artist? This is illustrated by artists such as Joseph Beuys, Tom Friedman and Andy Kaufman, it becomes this catch 22 which if highlighted becomes inevitably humorous.
I began to piece together the three purposefully separated pieces within the room. The overall simple link was fire, from the title to, the fire hose, the furniture with this everlasting pitiful flame suggesting the fire would never go out even when the gallery itself was closed and Isenstein’s framed digital print. Are we walking into fire? Or even a right of passage? The bent candle in the digital print mirroring the farm of neighboring burners suggested this epistemology in which human activities are conditioned by nature.
The large space between each section of the work resembled chapters within a book that had been separated and re-arranged to form a new jumbled sequence. The blurb of the work explains that the title from Sartre play called ‘No Exit’. No exit is a one act, four-character play that is held in one room. One of the characters is the valet, which leads the other three characters into the room. You learn that the three characters are dead, damned souls in a plain room furnished in Second Empire style. None of them will admit the reason for their damnation. Not knowing this made me feel lost and not clear of my understanding for the work. I question the relationship now between the work and the viewer, is it that the viewer is the middle point bringing their own memories or collective memory for example present within popular culture or does it become an ‘emancipated audience’ in which the viewer brings everything to the work? No Exit is a play about the “devouring” gaze of the other and how it restricts one’s freedom, incorporated into the play itself and played out on stage through the gaze of the audience members. Is Isenstein again making reference to artistic freedom? Is she purposefully playing with the idea of the viewer, having this passive participation with the work? If this is a play does Isenstein play the valet and her hand points down to hell with the three pieces represent the three characters within this room? Is the second empire furniture another reference to Romanticism due to the furniture dating to almost the same time as the Romanticism movement was in the late 18th century early 19th?
The blurb also explains ‘empire of fire’ as a reconstruction of a set design from No Exit so it becomes a copy of a copy and therefore does it just become solely about Sartre ideas within the book of existentialism, freedom, bad faith and responsibility?
I find that ‘No Exit’ becomes more interesting than ‘empire of fire’ is this appropriation gone too far? Is it that previous philosophers and writers like Sartre can communicate this idea better and so why bother? Or is it just another postmodern reference that nothing is new everything is recycled, I hope not. This leaves me questioning my own work what appropriation can do and the realisation that certain references come with more baggage then others, as an artist I need to be aware of all of these.
[iii] Dan Brown (2003) The Da Vinci Code