Michèle Waquant

It was hard not to be moved by Michéle Waquant’s latest installation, Impression Debacle, 1992, a video and sound environment that presented nature as a cathartic force, rather than as an object for creative interpretation. Waquant’s earlier videos include 212, rue du Faubourg Saint Antoine, 1989, in which voyeuristic shots of passersby taken from a window are stretched out of shape, anamorphized, and only fleetingly come into focus. These recorded images distort time with a neurotic urgency. En attendant la pluie (Waiting for the rain, 1987), a video totem of four vertically stacked color monitors displayed scenes that alternated between a view of a back alley with telephone poles and the figure of a formally posed woman looking through a window, while voice-overs recounted the story of the deluge in Gitskan. It had the hallucinatory, reliquary quality of a legend—the framing device and sequential representation resembled those used in classical painting.

The most imposing part of Impression Débâcle was two continuous videotapes of ice breaking up on the Chaudière River in Beauce (a province of Quebec) projected on two adjacent walls. At first sight, the sheer scale of these close-ups of ice floes and churning water produced the same seductive feelings of solitude as those evoked by Caspar David Friedrich’s Frozen Sea, 1823, but sublimity can take a turn for the worse when technology does the painting. Lacking any of the subjective interventions of Doug Hall’s Prelude to the Tempest, 1985, in which video and sound techniques served to foreground the issues underlying the nature/technology debate, Impression Débâcle overwhelmed us with a cacophony of sounds: the crunching and grinding of ice floes; shrieking police sirens; the trickle and thunder of water; the voice of a radio announcer giving the morning weather broadcast; the cries of seagulls; and babbling voices that popped at random from the 12 columns of speakers running diagonally across the darkened space.

Across the room, a TV screen presented another stage of technology. Coherent and personally accessible, like a televised notebook, it depicted domestic scenes of food preparation, close-ups of a relief map, a jogger, a man walking, two skaters on a river, and a small boat lifting buoys out of the ice like corks out of a bottle. The scale here seemed innocent, almost ordinary in comparison to the images that appeared on the maxiscreen—an endless series of footprints in the snow was followed by a waterfall with ice floes enclosed in a smaller rectangle which then split and became more intricate, breaking away from the standard video format in a number of ingenious ways.

Romantics momentarily seeking transcendence could see Impression Débâcle as a kind of mini-IMAX experience, a state-of-the-art Epcot-style travelogue replete with synapse-splitting sound effects and sanitized scenography. In its National Geographic–like impartiality, Waquant’s installation inadvertently exposed how much today’s media-generated special effects are but a synthetic update of Romanticism, in which nature is just an idea with little correlation to external experience, a metaphor for our perceptual and sensory self-image.

John K. Grande