On ViewSPRING/BREAK Art Show
March 6 – March 12, 2018
Most people go through an entire day without looking at anything for more than a few seconds. Even while our eyes are glued to a computer screen, they’re roaming around, searching for buttons and tabs or following the black pixels of newly typed words across a document. Continuous eye contact is rare because it is uncomfortable. It is said to be the gateway to the soul—what could be more vulnerable than that? Interrogators use it to intimidate criminals. Tantra uses it to induce intimacy. Animals use it to establish dominance. And people use it every morning in the mirror to reflect, though we rarely do so for three and a half minutes, which is what Brooklyn-based artist Bobby Anspach and his installation, Place for Continuous Eye Contact (8) at the Spring Break Art Show, ask of us.
Unlike birds’ eyes, which are fixed and rely on the head for movement, human eyes are built to constantly dart around and cast visual nets around their surroundings. Our mind gets to show off its powers of pattern recognition, and we perceive feelings like anxiety, attraction, surprise, and fear. But when we resist the urge to look around and focus the eyes on a single object, much like resisting the urge to fall asleep after taking a sleeping pill, the mind grows hungry and short circuits, releasing its powers of analysis and opening up whatever gateway our ancient ancestors spoke about when they spoke about the eyes.
At least, that’s the theory behind what happens inside room 2338 at 4 Times Square—a theory that feels more plausible once you step inside. The room could easily pass for the experimental chambers of Victor Frankenstein’s heir. It looks prepped for administering an ungodly amount of electrical power into an object or person of the artist’s choosing. Anspach’s work is a large, raised, glowing chamber made of insulation boards with a hospice bed on a gurney poking out from the middle. The scene is almost as unsettling as eye contact. Wires and extension cords spill out from all sides of the chamber, creating a latticework of power that adds a DIY feel to the piece, as if the wires somehow reinforce the artist’s presence the way visible brush strokes do on a canvas.
As you approach the chamber, a looming Anspach in a pressed, scrub-blue button down welcomes you and slides the insulation boards apart, dramatically revealing a surreal world of multi-colored pom-poms and glowing glass orbs that look like Tesla Coils reaching down towards the bed. If this weren’t taking place at a public art show, you’d undoubtedly think twice before entering.
Inside, the chamber is about eight by twelve feet, just large enough to avoid inducing claustrophobia, and completely covered in pom-poms of all sizes. It would feel like a child’s playroom were it not for the sinister looking orbs, or the hospice bed, or the mass of wires visible along the floor.
As you take your place on the bed, Anspach positions himself to your side and with his wide, cerulean blue eyes, maintains unblinking eye contact as he instructs you to do the same in the eye-sized mirror hanging down just above your head. He hands you noise-cancelling headphones, places an eye patch over one eye, and lets you know that “the space is all yours for the entirety of the song.”
But before you can take in much of your surroundings, Anspach exits the chamber and you feel the bed raising up towards the mirror until it’s only about six inches from your face. As your eye grows and fills the mirror and an original score by the musician “Eluvium” begins to play in your headphones, LEDs shift the color of the space around you, and all sense of depth and dimension begin to collapse. Foreground and background become indistinguishable. The small pom-poms on the hanging mirror and orbs close to your face blend with bigger pom-poms on the ceiling. Your unblinking eye, fixed in the mirror, becomes part of this undefinable space.
The work is an illusionary feat for sure, but something else happens when maintaining this illusion for such a long period of time. The effect is similar to the feeling of mindfulness in meditation. When focusing on one’s breath, the space between the thing focusing and the thing involuntarily breathing collapses, and this loss of placement along with the profound feeling it produces is what people who decide to become monks devote a lifetime to understanding. Which isn’t to say Place for Continuous Eye Contact (8) will turn you into a monk. But it certainly introduces you to an egoless state unknown outside of meditation and maybe psychedelic substances.
The “(8)” in the piece’s name signifies Anspach’s eighth iteration of such a machine, and the only one built specifically to the dimensions of a space outside his studio. His past machines vary in size, duration, and participants (some require two people staring into each other's eyes), but they all explore eye contact as a means of accessing an altered state, which is what places Anspach’s work within the theme of this year’s Spring Break Art Show: “Stranger Comes to Town.” Eyes are at once revealing and removing. They can draw us into others or help us see ourselves as an other. But when suspended in multicolored, dimensionless fabric, as Anspach has discovered, they have the power to do both.
ADAM BEAL is a contributor to the Brooklyn Rail.