189,200,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 mm by Lucy PowellExhibition January 19th - February 18th 2006
Perception, space and subjectivity are three key words to approach the work of Lucy Powell, concepts that she has been investigating artistically over the past years. Her taste for minimal means of expression to communicate broad-sweeping psychological concepts finds its most recent outcome in the filming of trained fleas to illustrate a boundary that only exists in the imagination. These minuscule creatures have long attracted surprised and amused gazes at traditional flea circuses after being subjected to simple stimulus-response processes to which fleas respond - unlike many other insects - in a way similar to more developed animals; a fact also exploited in behavioural research experiments. One of these experiments - or circus training techniques - is the insertion of the fleas into a glass container whose ceiling is gradually lowered to shorten, and even eliminate, their jumping distance, a scenario captured by the artist's camera.
From a documentary position, Powell shows how the insects' perception of space and limitation is subjected to permanent modification: the fear of hitting the glass (the pain barrier) reduces their perceived existential area, creating a new border that they do not dare cross even when the container is removed. That is, although a flea ordinarily jumps about 30 cm, the video shows the crawling and hopping insect mass now springing to approximately a third of this height, up to the level to which the glass ceiling was adjusted. Trained together, the dark dots, the tiny organisms serve as a visualization of a subjective idea: the conceptual horizon line in their minds, the non-existent invisible limit they unconsciously delineate by means of their ordered and uniformly reduced elliptical jumping. Thus, this minimalist video projection was entitled; after a day of rigorous training they jumped no higher than 8 formally divides itself into two areas, creating an abstract pattern that encloses a conceptual aim: the lower half, full of the physical activity of the fleas; and the upper, void of them but mentally occupied in their collective imagination as an impossible, impenetrable no-go zone.
The piece forms part of a larger installation in which the space of the gallery finds its reflection in the projected space. From the outside, through the gallery window, visitors can see a doubling container and a repetition of real and unreal division of spaces. Distance to the ultimate horizon: 189,200,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 mm is written on the glass, in reference to astronomer Erwin Hubble's calculation of the distance between the earth and the edge of the universe - a distance of 20 billion light years in flea-sized units. The immensity of the cosmos and, above all, what starts after its limits is as unthinkable, as void and unreachable as the blank area at top half of the container where the fleas do not hop. The horizons of both spaces - one subjective and perceptual, the other so huge that it becomes a mere idea - can only be visually guessed, by observation of the behaviour of these insects or by a mathematical representation. Both are frontiers that solely exist in the minds of life forms, and do not necessarily match the position of real ones.
In this regard, and like much of Powell's earlier work, the installation's focal point is the flickering between subject and subjectivity. There may be an objective reality, but it is impossible to access because there is always a gap, a space between the reality of the object and the subjectivity of perception, a space filled by readings, associations and projections of the self. As phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty said "we must not wonder whether we really perceive a world, we must instead say: the world is what we perceive".
Judith Manzoni © 2006