Tom Otterness

Instituto Valenciano de Arte Moderno (IVAM)

Tom Otterness’ work investigates the nature of public monuments, their social and psychological implications, and their artistic value. A founding member of Collaborative Projects Inc., Otterness considers his small figurines as carriers of a mock monumentality. The Tables, an installation begun in 1986, invites the viewer to enter a new frame of reference—of cultural memory, parody, and allegory. From a child’s perspective, the audience sinks into an unreal world where distortions in scale, role, and relationship among characters help to reveal the almost surreal scene taking place in the work. With a certain cinematic quality, which can be traced back to Otterness’ earlier films, the action of these works describes a complex scenario of human behavior. On top of three oversized, CorTen steel tables, a frozen vignette of creatures performing a sophisticated game can be read as a metaphor of urban reality, human greed, or even world catastrophe.

The audience is manipulated by the artist and invited, by means of his exploitation of their curiosity, to consume his message. The miniature fantasy world, similar to those of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, features various aberrations—animals behaving like humans—absurdities, trick proportions, and references and perceptions that provoke reflection.

Its large scale does not allow for an overview of the story; rather it forces the viewer to read the story as cinematic, fragmented stills that incorporate the notion of time. The dimension of time is also implied in the work by injecting movement into the many figurines, and by the use of suspended animation in the cartoonlike scenes. An instant, whether eternal or brief, and a common scenario are the only links connecting a horse waiting for a phone call and a hooded death figure checking the time on his watch atop a cracked globe.

Catastrophe, labor, regeneration, death and birth, games of power, unavoidable epidemics, and supernatural forces parody the world’s mechanistic movements that, in a fast reading, could be mistaken for a surreal performance.

These works demand interaction with the viewer. Read as a narrative sequence, the installation is divided into four rectangular stages or screens with a multilevel and multiactive time sequence and frame. Otterness’ miniatures emulate life and represent, like a Hieronymus Bosch painting, the layers of human existence as well as the natural mechanistic principles of the scientific world.

Anaxtu Zabalbeascoa