The word “rapture” is meant to cannote an emotional state of intense joy and love possessing the mind to the exclusion of every other emotion or consideration. To begin to describe Alan Dunning’s installation Rapture-Scattered Bodies (1996) from the perspective of joy seems appropriate. Dunning’s sitespecific installations elaborate on the viewer’s senses and her/his immersion into environments incorporating the minutiae of physical reality as well as the enmeshing of complex structures, relative associations and ordered delirium.
Upon entering Rapture, the sounds of an echoed breathing can be heard and this rhythmically, strategically orchestrated soundtrack follows the viewer throughout her/his visit. The breathing, which at first seems almost natural, becomes increasingly irritating, constricting and finally claustrophobic. The exhibition space, in near darkness, disorients the viewer while also requiring that s/he take a leap of faith and step forward to look. In the centre of the room, drawn between two pillars, hangs a thin projection screen. A computerdriven video projection, which displays the reappearing image of a deep-sea diver, can be circled and seen from both sides of the screen while illuminating the room with a shimmering iridescent glow.
Scattered on the walls, directly across from the screen projection, and covering the two adjacent walls, are a series of colour laser printed transparent labels representing approximately fifty different smell molecules. They are placed on a horizontal or vertical axis and are connected by their similar physical components: the little knobs and stems touching or overlapping in order to create clusters. The smells represented by these molecules include roses, rotten eggs, wood and almond, with various levels of toxicity, comfort or repulsion could they be genuinely inhaled. This agglomeration of approximately 4,000 labels is a significantly labourious component (it took the artist and a technician over a week to complete it) and imbues the installation with the physical evidence of the body at work.
Like the scent molecule labels, the video images have been collected and regrouped. They have been culled from television programs, filtered through a computer and recorded; or they are photographs and computer images enlarged and manipulated. Images of dancing, banquets, jungles, 3-D computer representations of fields, as well as the recurring deepsea diver, are looped and mixed throughout the five-hour-long projection. A text is layered into the sequence, sometimes bleeding into a scene and at other times standing alone on a coloured background and reading both frontwards and backwards. The script, similar to a long poem, is descriptive and acutely nostalgic for lost moments and feelings. It can be read in a trancelike rhythmic form – “the scent of oranges, the sound of water dripping, an inner ring of iron railings, dirt covers the walls and shelves, two mirrors” – and attempts to evoke the symbolic importance of objects.
Dunning has been working on these texts for an extended period of time, which could be more accurately described as one text expanded and modified. It is much like a “soup” (the word he uses to describe his pieces) which is constantly replenished yet never depleted, and over the course of years retains a trace of the original broth. These texts are carried about from installation to installation much like Walter Benjamin’s cherished book collection which he carried until the end of his life. The words seem to be a kind of talisman and function to contextualize the author within the symbolic realm, while feeding the story line. Because Dunning uses numerous quotes and intermixes them, their origins are scattered and difficult to identify. Authors possibly utilized in this work include Alain Robbe-Grillet, Umberto Eco, Hannah Arendt, Marina Warner and Anna Kavan. To further confuse, the quotes have also been processed by computer software that rearranges, shuffles and translates parts of them into French. The result is surprisingly poetic and human, and weighs on the reader while giving the installation a sense of grounding, history and conscience.
It is said that deep-sea divers will sometimes lose their senses (due to a lack of oxygen and increase of nitrogen in the blood) and remove their masks in an attempt to merge with the aquatic environment. This is what Dunning refers to when he speaks of rapture, the breaking down of the ego, the desire to become entwined with the environment in a delirious communion.
This democratization of information – the scattering of words, images, patterns and stories that neither begin nor end – can be linked to recent theories of technology. The combination of sound, visual and olfactory association and general “sense” experience in Rapture can be described as a critique of virtual reality modes of construction. Certainly, what differentiates it from pure technological idolatry is its insistence on the physical manipulation of the elements such as the “real” stickers, and the viewer’s required physical displacement through the space, translating it into a very different experience. Furthermore, the projection and texts insist on a perverse sentimentality of the senses, of emotions and a distinctly embodied experience of the whole of its content.
Dunning’s work must be charted as lying somewhere on the threshold of “new” technologies, of the disembodied, computer-driven abandon of the ego, and that of craft, poetry and traditional, contemplative, non-technological types of art. Rapture, by bridging this chasm, and creating a co-habitable space for these two modes of expression, better equips us to find our way back to the surface when we do remove the oxygen mask.