Placelessness 

Ben Curnow, 2000
Catalogue essay Flight 953B

The transferral of the seating plan aboard a Boeing 747 passenger jet to the flat plane of the gallery wall, in Flight 934-B, is disarmingly literal. Close to four hundred separate photographs – individual portraits of the passengers on a transcontinental flight – make up a composite image, which is an abstraction of the aeroplane. As would seem perfectly logical, the placement of these images within such a formal matrix is determined by the place where each person was sitting on an actual flight. Yet the function of the work does not so much rest with its value as accurate documentation or description, so much as an invocation of air travel as a metaphor for the subjective experience of the individual within a public context. With its theme of travel, Flight 934-B represents (on one level) a vehicle of actual transportation and its regimented allotments of human cargo. At the same time it presents an aggregate of high-density but entirely private personal spaces: a multitudinous portrait.

Works of art signify by way of inverted planes that are not generally isomorphic with the plane of ordinary experience, in a literal sense, but are rather analogous enough to invoke something of the fundamental sentiment of our ‘being in the world’ – the way in which we ‘inhabit’ spaces and orient ourselves temporally. Portraiture as an established genre is one such plane, denoting the zone of personal space (as well as designating, often a person’s social space). While the in-flight portraits in Mathieu Gallois’ work may resemble terrestrial portraits, there is an undeniable feeling that they reveal some aspect of human experience that has not been captured in portraits before: it is the sense of the subject in temporal extensity, disjoined almost completely from direct perceptual knowledge of where one is, or where one is going. They have, as it were, a presence without perspective, inhabiting a place outside space, where the subject serves as it own location. In this sense, the passengers on Flight 934-B have commissioned themselves and become that portrait for the duration of the flight.

Much as boats and trains have symbolised, in earlier art, the experience of a subjective, ‘existential’ relationship to the world and to destiny, so the technological object of the jet aircraft (albeit significantly absent from the work itself) is suggestive of an existential situation, both individual and collective. It embodies the principle of placelessness – whereby the most disjoined and dispersed facets of being, seem, paradoxically, to assemble on a single plane – a principle that is increasingly pervasive in our lives. Flight 934-B thus presents us with a distinctly contemporary account of what it means to be human and a ‘citizen of the world’: no longer the inhabitant of a particular place, but one who belongs to no place and to every place at once. As such the portraits are intimate and very ‘human’ images, despite their display en masse; for each person is on their own, essentially private journey.


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