Corin Sworn explores the subjective nature of experience and its relationship to history, most notably in After School Special (2009), her re-edited, dubbed version of the rebellious youth movie Over the Edge (1979). In her new installation The Lens Prism (all works 2010), which was commissioned by Tramway, these theoretical concerns become site-specific with Working Model of a Viewing Subject, a video shot in the venue’s theatre space. The historical residue of Tramway’s former lives – as both Glasgow’s Museum of Transport and the location of Peter Brook’s lengthy play Mahabharata (1988) – provides a starting point for the young, Glasgow-based artist, from which she has idiosyncratically linked references from a variety of 19th- and 20th-century sources in a series of self-scripted, Beckettian monologues.
Working Model of a Viewing Subject is divided into several segments, separated by short intervals of black footage, and features one actor who performs in the proceeding scenarios. Over 17 minutes he connects the 1851 Great Exhibition in London, the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris, and the theatre space he is in with dialogue and descriptions that mimic those of Chris Marker’s La Jetée (The Pier, 1962). Sworn has opted for simple lighting and props rather than elaborate stage sets, using them to create a sense of cohesion between the tangential and disparate addresses. At one point, Raymond Roussel’s epic poem New Impressions of Africa (1932) is described, its four sections and their abstract composition suggesting a comparison with the sequential structure and often puzzling linearity of the video (each of the cantos in Roussel’s poem are in fact single sentences and host numerous onion-like sub-clauses).
Sworn also cites Kevin Hetherington’s Capitalism’s Eye (2007), a reassessment of Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle (1967), as a profound influence on her thinking. In Hetherington’s book he examines ‘the spectacle’ at the time of the Industrial Revolution, and the role it played in shaping society, as the basis for what this means for the spectator today. Contrastingly, Sworn’s video situates the same subject matter (primarily the Great Exhibition) in the present and reminds us of the profuse and often-conflicting historical documentation available today. How we process this apparent abundance of information is a relatively recent problem; in Working Model of a Viewing Subject, the traditional medium of theatre and the video’s inherent linearity grounds the conundrum by providing a familiar framework around which these intricacies and ambiguities are laced together.
The Lookers, a drawing of early 20th-century gentry with their backs turned, was hung on a spot-lit partition wall. It represents the act of viewing, the figures peering through rectangular windows cut in the layered drawing paper. The period in question, as well as the physical act of ‘looking’, can be seen to illustrate the society Hetherington examines in Capitalism’s Eye. The coloured spots that light the framed work, similar to those used in the video, flooded the entire space with an air of theatricality. While The Lookers doesn’t involve the same referential and technical intricacies as Working Model of a Viewing Subject, it provides a clue to deciphering the latter work. For Sworn, rationalizing the act of viewing is a predicating factor in the initial conception of her work, a rationale that she proceeds to dismantle and then reconfigure, creating a multifaceted perspective that, in The Lens Prism, questions the fluid reality it represents.
First published in Issue 135