Maria Bilske, 2001
LIKE Arts Magazine Issue 15, C-International Contemporary Art Magazine, Canada
Hollywood has caused us to think of mirages as hallucinations. Their appearance in films signals that an actor, overcome by desert heat, has lost touch with reality, or at least the reality of the film. In actuality, mirages are not formed by the imagination, but are a manipulation of the truth – a trick of the light where everything seen exists but is often distorted an might be miles from the place where it is seen.
The mirages in film are, of course, far more fantastical than in nature. While we might see mountains where they don’t exist, or be convinced there is water on a dry road, Hollywood gives us an oasis in the desert with seductive transparently veiled women, palm trees and swimming pools. It’s this tradition that Mathieu Gallois’ installation Flesh builds on. On a curving stage-set, Gallois has created a stylised filmic version of the a desert oasis – with a pair of palm trees to shade the pool of water, and a centrepiece of a plushly cushioned, tented bed – painted entirely in blue.
There’s a slick theatricality to this reified mirage that has the viewer questioning its substance. The tableau is ostensibly real enough, despite the curvature of its stage, which erases the horizon and renders the scene floating and placeless. Still, the lighting is too dim to trust our eyes, and the parameters of the platform prevent us from getting close enough to touch any part of the scene and verify its tangibility. Then there’s the matter of its blueness, which is suggestive of illusion -– mountains, for example, always look blue in the distance.
The shade of blue Gallois uses here is the same as used in the background of chroma-key special effects – the technique whereby a blue screen is replaced by a another background to convince us that actors are flying, or on Mars, instead of in a television studio. So, if applied to footage of Gallois’ installation, the chroma-key technique should make the work, like a mirage, dematerialise. Neat. But whatever Gallois’ intentions, it can’t end there. Unavoidably, the intensity of the blue and the completeness of its coverage recalls late Modernism -– most obviously Yves Klein – and the tradition of blue pigment suggesting metaphysical transformation, transcendence, immateriality and the sublime.
Even without this history, the saturation of colour is intoxicating. Desire, inherent in the Hollywood version of mirages, is at once heightened and frustrated by the coolness and distance the colour lends the scene. The empty monochromatic surface of Flesh functions as a screen onto which we can project our fantasies. It’s the intense darkness inside the tent that is most suggestive here, the canopied bed piquing our interest with its promise of steamy, heady sex scenes.
There’s something detached and alienating about the work too – the tableau hovers on its platform in the gallery space like an apparition, daring us to suspend our disbelief. Borrowing the artifice of cinema, Gallois has created his own dream factory, one which tantalises us with the inaccessibility of the pure pleasure it promises. And while Flesh flaunts its surface, like the best cinematography, it also hints and something deeper, and it’s this slippage that engages us beyond the initial sensation.