New York

Matthew McCaslin

Whitney Museum of American Art at Philip Morris

If the natural world seems to have been eaten alive by media culture, Matthew McCaslin would like us to consider the possibility of reclaiming a lost “sublime” experience of nature through video- or television-based technologies. Engineering a return of the repressed, McCaslin gives nature symbolic redemption as the new “sublime” experience of visual simulation by irresistibly dovetailing rank organicism and lush spectacle.

In an earlier installation, Bloomer, 1995, McCaslin used time-lapse photography to record the blossoming of flowers, then accelerated the footage to an unnatural velocity, offering a schizoid, speed-freak version of the Nature Channel. One of the most gorgeous video installations in recent memory, Bloomer effortlessly transformed the prosaic into the uncanny.

This show, a more recent foray into what might be called the “postlandscape” genre, comprised McCaslin’s Harnessing Nature, 1996. A constellation of variously sized monitors in a darkened space, this installation pulled you into a whirl of images and sounds that recalled the cyclonic whoosh of jet engines during takeoff. Yet as you scanned the interrelated sequences of images—ocean waves breaking and water running under ice—that circulated throughout McCaslin’s oddly biological matrix of wires, video-players, monitors, speakers, and other electronic apparatuses, you were led to reconsider your initial identification of the surge of sound. The sound track, it turned out, was based on the same two sources, though it was virtually impossible to distinguish them. The recordings had been spun together to produce a tightly calibrated mix of oscillating, sonorous blasts. With the volume pushed to the point of virtual overload (the room actually seemed to vibrate), McCaslin’s patterned crescendos suggested a great, ambiguous noise yearning for physical embodiment.

As is true of many of McCaslin’s installations, the independent monitors were stacked and grouped in a carefully designed composition that had a sculptural presence and that mapped out a spatial territory. Some monitors had been turned on their sides, or flipped onto their backs, so that the images were skewed and the normative reference points that we expect when viewing strictly documentary footage were suspended. Here, connotation superseded denotation as a play of abstract patterns unfolded, and the final effect was of a materialized electronic land- and seascape nudged into the realm of the metaphysical by the continuously flickering blue-black and white ambient light.

As Marshall McLuhan wrote in Understanding Media, “The TV image is not a still shot. It is not [a] photo in any sense, but a ceaselessly forming contour of things limned by the scanning-finger. The resulting plastic contour appears by light through, not light on, and the image so formed has the quality of sculpture and icon, rather than a picture.” In a sense, McCaslin approaches the use of video from a somewhat more traditional, television-based perspective than does an artist like Diana Thater, whose projected images-in-motion achieve an auratic presence, “transcending” the object-based condition of their own delivery system. Artists such as McCaslin and Thater certainly share an abiding interest in the question of “mediatized nature” and theatricality. The latter’s formal technique, however, involves a projection of the video into architectural space (which becomes a kind of proxy screen) that creates an all-encompassing environment. McCaslin, on the other hand, utilizes an aggregate of TV monitors—the residual, physical emblems of our collective television culture—to transmit images through the window of the screen/frame into space. In Harnessing Nature, that physical aggregate dissolved into an audiovisual ambience that nevertheless remained linked to its mundane, technological ground.

Joshua Decter