Dan Graham

Dan Graham’s “pavilions” in this retrospective are event spaces consciously directed toward public participation. While Pavilion/Sculpture for Argonne (interior version), 1978–81, for example, might initially be interpreted as a minimalist work, on closer inspection it turns out not to be a closed, self-asserting piece, but an instrument of projection and introspection. The cubelike frame, divided into two triangular chambers and structured with a refined arrangement of glass and mirrors, very soon involves viewers in the work’s constantly fluctuating appearance, in fact integrates them into it. The piece’s formal elegance and severity become perceptibly less important; ultimately what matters is the communication it triggers.

For Graham, communication is to be understood as a comprehensive theoretical pattern that includes the social being, the human, as a self-reflecting individual. But it also includes the public person, and here “person” also specifically means “persona,” “mask,” “role.” Graham designs situations in which on the one hand communication role games are made visible, while on the other individual viewers are thrown back on themselves—reflected by mirrors and confronted with their own personas. In, say, Public Space/Two Audiences, 1976, two spaces, each soundproofed, are separated by glass; in one space the back wall is a mirror, in the other it is a white surface. Visitors are thus divided into two groups, separated from each other acoustically and spatially. As I stand in the space with the white rear wall, looking through the glass to the mirror, in addition to the two real spaces I see two more, unreal, spaces; I see my reflection removed from myself by the glass, somehow alienated. If people stand in the mirrored room facing me through the glass I see their backs in the mirror alongside my own reflection, which they are confronted with if they turn away from me. I have the advantage, for my counterparts in the mirrored space are always between me and my reflection, and I always see them both back and front; they are more on display than me, more threatened.

Similar yet differently oriented perception processes are offered in Two Viewing Rooms, 1975. One space is dark; from a brightly lit space on the other side of a two-way mirror it is barely perceptible. In addition, a concealed video camera in the dark space films the bright space and shows the images on a monitor there. Thus visitors in the bright space see themselves reflected in confusing diversity. They are always observed from the dark space; they try to grasp the situation, and finally discover that the solution to the riddle is the dark space, which they can perceive only by pressing their faces to the glass. If I stand in the dark space, the situation makes me a voyeur; I observe the people in the other space. Yet if I enter the other space my position is no simpler, since the consciousness of being observed compels the assumption of a role. The participating public, then, is enmeshed in a complex network of relations, and in a process of perception in which ultimately all participate. For whether voluntarily or not, each person has shown some human weakness and has witnessed a little of the weakness of others.

The unsettling aspect of Graham’s work is its suggestion of laboratory experiments, or of an unknown Big Brother’s sophisticated surveillance operation. But its playful character allows it to be felt more as a warning, or as a training ground for the acquisition of a new, necessary, more media-conscious state of being. By mirroring our social behavior it may also contribute to breaking down our social isolation; in Alteration to a Suburban Home, 1978, by mirroring the interior space and making the front wall glass, Graham not only permits the neighbors to participate in the life inside but also imaginarily fetches them to the table. The elimination of boundaries produces closeness.

Max Wechsler