On viewNurture Art
February 8 – March 10, 2019
Descending a flight of stairs into the sunken gallery, the syrupy sounds of a '60s exotica album echo off a tiled floor. A large hardbound reference book is propped up on a bookstand. It is opened to a page with a black and white photograph of a darkened room containing what looks like the shell of an observatory, brightly illuminated from the inside. And then, there it is, replicated in the gallery, like a structure from The X-Files, but maybe also Burning Man⎯the transparent, light-filled dome fills the far end of the room. The slippage between the structure's connotations of utopian geodesics and the paranoia of a top-secret alien operating room only reinforces the retrospective sense of shock, and maybe a chortle of disbelief at what it was used for: This is a replica of a structure used at Yale to study babies.
A collaboration between the artist Gabo Camnitzer, who often works with children in his practice, and the architect Lluís Alexandre Casanovas Blanco, their exhibition at Nurture Art presents the study of children itself as a social practice that must be studied. We learn from the exhibition materials that the photographic dome was designed by Arnold Gesell, the progenitor of developmental psychology, who spent his career observing children. It was his theory that child development unfolds according to an innate set of rules. The centerpiece of the show, the dome is constructed of screens and painted white to reflect light inside, allowing it to function as a kind of early one-way mirror. With the world obscured from view, a purely natural sequence of events could be observed in the maturation of children. Affording a full hemisphere of silent mobility to its twin cameras, the photographic dome captured decontextualized infants responding to different puzzles and objects. It is an inverted observatory. Instead of facing out to the stars, it looks down upon an "average" infant chosen by Gesell—invariably white, always of a certain class. In the gallery, and in the book, a cradle stands at its center.
Camnitzer and Casanovas Blanco also used the dome for a new experiment. They turned the dome over to a class from the local elementary school in partnership with Nurture Art, with a grown-up actor serving as their test subject. On pajama day, the students administered tests of their own devising, using an array of contemporary Gesell Institute props while their peers looked on. For Gesell, the lab, the windows, and the observers are necessarily invisible, and along with them so is any kind of social or historical study. And yet here, the frame is folded, and the science unwittingly becomes an object of study and play in the hands of children, as the psychologist's dome is transformed into a spectacle of his technical methodology.
As with all things that combine the aesthetics of 20th century science-gone-wrong with infants, the horror and humor of the exhibition is strong, if a bit ready to hand. Where it really stands out is in the subtle lines of flight from Gesell's overdetermined primal scene such as in the cradle, an illustration by Gesell, reminiscent of Jacques Lacan's mirror stage, is hand-stitched into a blanket by Casanovas's mother, Maria Lluisa Blanco Estebanez, suggesting another set of optics than that of Gesell's one-way mirror. In a sculptural pun on Piaget's three mountain problem, the work of another developmental psychologist, a small baby figurine on a miniature rocking horse spins round on a rotating painted model of a mountain landscape. In the 20th century, so many tests have been devised to learn about children, yet what is advanced in the work of Casanovas and Camnitzer is not only a critique of their disciplinary aspects, but also the presentation of their unimpeachable aesthetic dimension.
Rather than linger on the somewhat esoteric history of Gesell's theories, the wall text for the show comprises a string of clauses, each appropriated from press releases and exhibition texts of recent years. Despite their dislocation, these excerpts come together to describe the photographic dome. The effect is a strange continuity between Gesell's experiments and contemporary artistic practices in which highly technical situations are thought to evidence something other than their own ideological condition, even "the origins of human consciousness." The objectification of an assumed model of human subjectivity seems to be one of the stakes for Casanovas and Camnitzer. The choice to not include a corresponding set of footnotes for the superscript numerals of this wall text raises the specter of troubling resurgent bio-determinisms, as forms of knowledge conditioned by the bright white lights of Gesell's dome, which might be foundational to and flourishing in artworks and in life today.