San Francisco

Michael O'Malley

Southern Exposure

ONE OF LIFE'S MOST HUMBLING REVELATIONS is that we each carry our own mental landscape, our unique version of tunnel vision, wherever we go. As we move through the world, we're seeing it through the veil of our past experiences and present preoccupations. Though Michael O'Malley's recent installation “Top Heavy,” 1999–2000, may have served as a metaphor for this framing process, it also demonstrated the degree to which works of art can shape and determine our perceptions in subtle but important ways.

In Southern Exposure's expansive main space, O'Malley built a maze-like network of interconnected upside-down troughs whose inner contours, or undersides, approximately echoed the outline of a head, shoulders, and upper torso. This plaster-and-wire structure of “corridors” was supported by a matter-of-fact system of two-by-fours (similar in appearance to the framing hidden inside the walls of a house) so that the troughs were just high enough to rather narrowly accommodate the top third of the average visitor's body. One could duck under the plaster structure, between these wood supports, and move from one corridor to another or escape the piece altogether. In contrast to a traditional labyrinth, there were several entrances/exits and no ultimate destination or privileged pathway.

O'Malley created a uniquely disorienting environment by restricting the upper part of the body instead of the lower part and thereby radically altering the usual experience of being hemmed in (which tends to be from the ground up, as in a crowd, or even continuously all around, as in an elevator, but rarely involves only the upper third of the body). Imagine traversing a giant maze whose sharp turns and dead ends affect not your feet but your head, whose quirky narrow spots bring the wall to within inches of your face. Walking through the piece induced an awareness of the weight and constriction of one's own thoughts as well as of the disturbance caused in the world by each person's passing through time and space—the old idea that all events and experiences are somehow interlocked, that squashing a butterfly in Bangkok affects a truck driver in Poughkeepsie. Though the piece's gentle, cornerless contours had an oddly comforting quality, its constriction was alarming at the same time. The structure suggested artificial enclosures ranging from amusement-park rides to some kind of diabolical psychological experiment.

There is a whole genre that could be called “dumbfoundingly labor-intensive installations providing amazing sensory experiences.” Many such pieces are spectacular—works by Ann Hamilton or Cildo Meireles, for example. Though “Top Heavy” exudes the powerful sense of time and effort spent that some of Hamilton's efforts do, its purpose seems to be quite different. It emphasizes more the relationship between the body and architecture while serving as a kind of metaphor for agencies of social control. Its dominant experience—of a peculiar kind of confinement and deprivation—makes it less a tourist attraction (that is, a passive experience of novelty) and more a means for focusing on internal events. Finally, there is something faintly ironic about the way in which the piece reminds us that we are “top-heavy”: that we pay far too much attention to the brain and its tunnel vision, practically ignoring what we could learn through unmediated experience—what the rest of the body has to teach.

Maria Porges