New York

Liz Phillips

The museum’s Film and Video Gallery was transformed for over a month into an environment that raised a host of questions about the relationship between space, movement, and sound. The walls of the gallery were painted a subdued gray and the space was turned into a reinterpretation of a Japanese rock garden. Instead of using the traditional sand or small pebbles, Liz Phillips covered the floor with uncombed wool. Near the center of the room was a structure; its scrim walls, skewed to form a parallelogram in plan, housed the electronic controls for the installation. A raised wooden walkway led to this structure and formed a path around it. At other sites around the space, Phillips placed groupings of rocks containing copper ore, shale, and quartz, and tablets of Arizona flagstone. Viewers were instructed to walk on the wooden path or stones, but not on the wool.

The Japanese garden has always been a calculated, ordered site for contemplation. Its components are metaphoric representations of larger natural systems and phenomena. Phillips’ installation evoked this pensive environment, but introduced a new variable that created another point of focus for the piece. As people moved throughout the space, the relationship of their bodies’ movements to the rock groupings and other elements generated an infinite variety of electronic acoustic effects. This introduced a factor of chance into the restrained, meditative surroundings.The acoustic stimuli and the changing position of people in the space became the dynamics in an otherwise inert context.

Phillips’ installation, called Granite Ground, focused particular attention on the aural as an important aspect of orientation and spatial comprehension, but it added an edge of complicity. By adjusting the sound events to the random gestures of people in the space, she challenged the idea of fixed points of adaptation. The smallest motion by anyone in the space could stimulate an acoustic response. But there was no apparent pattern of cause and effect. By making the volume of air in the gallery the site of both molecular and large-scale activity, Phillips presented the idea of space not as something left over, but as the dynamic situation for perception.

The changing, amplified, electronic sounds contrasted sharply with the artificial and exaggerated stillness of the environment. The sense of disorientation produced by these effects incited curiosity about which movements created which sounds and what this had to do with proximity to certain elements. The idea of the fortuitous was reintroduced through elaborate, technological systems. For the viewer, the space became a place for experiencing one’s own movements as the variable. The sound created another level of information involved with both immediacy and intimacy, while the physical characteristics implied more enduring, phenomenological qualities. This intense, inventive project brought another level of complexity and sophistication to installation art. Phillips’ piece activated and empowered the viewer, engendering a sense of serene befuddlement and heightened perception.

Patricia C. Phillips

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