The Artificial Magic of the Wondrous Effects
of Optics Through Direct Vision

title translated from Jean-François Niceron's treatise on perspective
La perspective curieuse ou Magie artificielle des effets merveilleux de l'optique par la vision directe [1638]

Using geological and astronomical events as found footage of the world, artist Elizabeth McTernan constructs a space that is both literal and literary, staging reality in what she calls non-vicarious encounters. Her aim is to create a narrative structure for the reconsideration of perception, to set the curved horizon of landscape into tension with the square horizons of screens, speakers, documents, and images. Her art works navigate representational and conceptual rifts in the Earthling day-to-day, via direct bodily gesture in the liminal passages of temporal geographies and the giant map that is human Knowledge.

In this solo exhibition, the artist uses 'life-size' drawings and installations in an attempt to dissolve the space between map and territory, posing the question: Is there such thing as direct vision – unmediated, absolutely embodied knowledge? If so, what are its limits, and how can it be articulated as form? In 2013, onsite measurements of a single island – in particular, a nameless island in Odense Fjord that recently emerged from the sea and may soon disappear – were made by a small team with rope, thumbs, hands, and arm’s lengths. The action was less about attaining stable measurements and more about chasing and catching a coastline that would itself disappear as quickly as it arrived. The team were relentlessly foiled by the fickle shoreline, its tiny, vulnerable perimeter made dramatically dynamic by the tides, waves, and rotting seaweed. The only way to make it through the measurements was to let go of the coastline that they had just pinned down, that was already behind them, and focus on the coastline of the now, the one that was under their feet or hands in the perpetually regenerative present moment. The moment-to-moment determination of the border between land and sea, and the “I” of unmediated measuring, made any map impossible to produce. This made the artist happy.

Measuring the nameless island reclaimed the cartographic lens from the sky and put it into the body of the measurer, pitching it directly in the unreliable dirt. This kind of anti-mapping project was followed with 1:1 scale maps of a puddle. The puddle can be seen as the nameless island inverted, also new, also fleeting, also defined by an amphibious border. After all, both islands and puddles are just dirt and water, and the puddle enables a cartographic totality that makes it quite a convenient subject for aerial mapping at ground level. These drawings depict repeated attempts to calculate the length of the coastline of one puddle with differing lengths of measure. All the conflicting totals rendered any one stable total nonexistent. To that end, these investigations of the ground underfoot are so impractically high-resolution as to shake off the so-called objectivity of quantification; intersubjectivities unsettle the culture of measurement. Just as each word of Niceron's title seems to negate the last, every step of measuring a coastline undoes the past. We could simply boil it all down to 'seeing', but it is within these intervals that meaning swells.

Juxtaposed with the body of drawings is a constellation of observatory works that provides several frames – those 'square horizons' – through which the viewer is invited to reconsider the act of seeing. Threaded through the frames is the materiality of glass: as camera and projector lens, as computer screen, as the many windows through which we gaze at the world (both across and down on), as the fiber optic cables that carry information. Glass is only a state away from sand, which also pervades the exhibition's narratives with its refusal to reify into solid territory. Nomadic Sahara sands, weary from sailing over oceans, come to rest on a car window, while other desert sands are arrested and melted to create the glass window pane of a hypothetical flying machine. Silt emerges from the bottom of the sea to form a temporary island that lolls today in a fjord in Denmark. Beach cusps mark the meeting grounds of Atlantic waters and Ireland. A puddle that was photographed at Cabo de Roca in Portugal, the westernmost point of continental Europe, awaits its return to the Atlantic sky as dust and vapor.

A compass positioned in the very center of the gallery and magnified as a projection in the north corner of the room acts as a linchpin for the exhibition, tethering the whole space to our wandering (or as scientists say, 'magnetically disturbed') North Magnetic Pole, while on an adjacent wall hangs the story of desert sands migrating towards the Arctic, and while the maps in the space, naturally, indicate north. The audio installation 'Long: A Composition for Staring Out a Window Across the Wide Wide World' invisibly emanates from the walls, a score for the compass needle's tireless longing. In a separate room, another long-distance viewing station stands at the ready for a solar eclipse to occur in the Pacific Ocean in March 2016. The projector is pointed at the floor, its beam imagined to extend through the earth all the way to the point on the other side where the totality of eclipse is anticipated. The live internet video feed of the event will draw its way around the globe through suboceanic fiber optic cables (the Earth describing a cone?), resulting in a white circle inscribed within a black projection square on the floor that illuminates the space despite its absence of light. hole in sun.jpg

Photo credit: NASA/Solar Dynamics Observatory