File Note #2: Rachel Harrison - Camden Art Centre

Essay by Andrew Renton

Rachel Harrison Images Quote References Biography Credits

Rachel Harrison

It’s a wonder that work stays standing. Rachel Harrison inhabits a precarious world between balance and imbalance, stability and collapse, unity and disjunction. Between one medium and another. Harrison’s objects are never one thing or another. That is not to say that they refuse to commit to the mediums they adopt or inhabit uneasily, or even address the very notion of medium or genre half-heartedly. Far from it. Rather the work is constantly challenging the form in which it finds itself.

Do we, then, attempt to speak of it in terms of sculpture, image or installation? The last option — the contemporary cover-all — is perhaps the least satisfactory. It is preferable to see the work inhabiting several mediums at once; testing and reconfiguring assumptions about each simultaneously. When Harrison affixes a framed photograph onto a three- dimensional structure, for example, the tension that results stems precisely from the uncomfortable conjunction in purely formal terms. Such discrepant objects were not supposed to coexist in one work. Uncomfortable yet, according to an internal, self-determined, scheme of appropriation and composition, peculiarly logical. A narrative seems to emerge that speaks of how these disparate elements came to inhabit the same space. In other words, the work always looks like it is in progress — not simply in terms of an unfinished aesthetic, but more in a sense of its own attempt to resolve its internal contradictions of form.

And still it is a wonder that the work is still standing. To some degree the objects pronounce themselves as standing structures — platforms, plinths, tripods, trestles, shelves — any means possible or necessary to promote display, to support the object, to take it out of the realm of the ordinary. Sometimes half-baked, often ironic, the structure seems to end up speaking for more than it was intended. As if built to support something, it becomes that thing itself. Never receding to invisibility, according to the convention of presenting objects, the artist enables the support to stand in for the work, or to anticipate a work that is always on the point of happening.

The work produces such a visual effect because nothing is fixed. Harrison is not one for gluing bits together. The look is always of something unsteady on its feet. Or perhaps there is no illusion to this, and the work is solely concerned with its own balance. There is, surely, a stern but playfully critical nod towards Richard Serra’s Prop pieces in works such as Mind the Gap (1996), Bustle in Your Hedgerow (1999) or the Honey Collector (2002). But if Serra is in the frame, then you begin to feel that Judd and Caro might be next in line for a drubbing. Harrison takes on these immovable obstructions of late modernism, even as she replicates and complicates an almost sacred history. And that history is constantly being revisited, critiqued, unpicked at the seams or, in the case of the men of heavy metal, at the welds. 

There is a great deal of looking going on. Looking and being looked at. There is the tiny ceramic figure in Untitled (Scholar’s Rock) 2001 that stares at a disproportionate blob that seems to have expanded way beyond his sightlines. Vision is tested in the Untitled (Perth Amboy) 2001 series of photographs, made at the site of a sighting of the Virgin of Guadeloupe in a New Jersey clapperboard house. From outside the camera might be able to observe an obscured body, whose hand tries to reach out of the window to touch the miraculous image from the other side of the pane. Visitors to the house seem to seek some tactile confirmation of the ghost image in the window. Their fingerprints on the pane become a secondary tracing of faith and witnessing; something to do with belief in the object. And the photographs, too, become critical objects within a scheme of witnessing.Harrison’s work comes to be about the limitations that this gaze imposes upon itself. This is often wryly filtered through the ever-reconstituting gaze of art history, such as Sister Wendy quizzically engaged with an ancient artefact in Sphinx (2002). The work is hung on a white wall or plane, whilst the gubbins that goes into making this wall stay standing reveals the fiction of a staged white-cube-in-progress. The real action is behind the scenes.

The constructions often complicate the perspective of just who is doing the looking. In the photographic element of Teaching Bo to Count Backwards (1996), Bo Derek is the object of desire, and husband John the voyeur to his own constructed desire. An ageing Elizabeth Taylor in Bustle in Your Hedgerow is hardly aware of herself being observed. (But can she ever not be observed?) The title of the work, referring, surely, to the ‘lady who’s sure all that glitters is gold’ in Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven, cannot help but direct us to Warhol’s image of her as effulgent celebrity. There can be no image of Liz without Andy’s being brought to mind. But Liz, here, is sad, diminished, confused, and Harrison chooses to lose the small-scale image in a large wall coloured stealth-bomber green.Warhol is, by the way, everywhere — notably in Blazing Saddles (2003) — a prank on cowboys, Mel Brooks, beans and flatulence, topped by a Campbell’s cardboard box. The reference is too easy, and Harrison knows it. The box is an insurance policy against joining the art history faculty.

Perhaps the way into the work is not to look too carefully. Harrison’s work sets up a simultaneity of experience, where levels of perception are layered. Certainly there is the stage of formal contemplation, looking for evidence in the object, but there is also awareness of ambient perception. The work is often not at the centre of one’s field of vision. It does not seek to over-determine meaning, and it tweaks the solemnity of ponderous observation. For her work at last year’s Venice Biennale, Indigenous Parts III, the objects know they cannot compete with the historical context in which they are set. Rather they draw a concentric series of contexts towards themselves for reappraisal and reflection. From the architecture of the space to the institutional framework of the Biennale, possibly signalled by two videos, one of a flea market style auction selling junk and kitsch, and another of a natural history documentary about ants, the work cannot be viewed without the viewer becoming uncomfortably aware of being implicated within it. And not quite knowing where to look. The project for Camden Arts Centre emerges from an insistent but low-key element in the installation. One thing leads to another. The elements combine only as the viewer moves through the space. They interpret each other, even suggest each other, as they dismantle our trust in specific objects. How, then, to read what happens in the room? Perhaps it begins with the absurdly obsessive crunching ritual performed by the Dalmatian in one of the video loops, as he gets to work on a bone. (Sculptural activity if ever there was …) A camera trails the dog from behind. Perhaps the angle of the camera induces the viewer to pick up on the herringbone floor of the exhibition space. A second video feature glittering, but elusive, prizes in an arcade game on Brighton pier. A series of small, improbably coloured structures inhabit the space that work as supports for packaged consumables. They seem to echo the dog in the video; wonky dogs as if rendered by a cubist sculptor who is observing the dog from already distorted angles. Angles and points of view are key to the composition. The camera tracks the dog from a low position. The viewer’s perspective distorts it in a different way. It can never redeem the original gaze, it only serves to render it more complex. Harrison offers the most dynamic solution possible to working in three dimensions, whilst inheriting the legacy of conceptual and minimal practice. The work is highly materialised without being prescriptive. It is political without an agenda. It opens a complex site of contemplation for the viewer to fix a gaze and establish perspective, then move on, move through, towards another take on the same scene. 

"There’s a sign on the wall, but she wants to be sure / And you know sometimes words have two meanings"
Led Zeppelin, Stairway to Heaven


Andy Warhol Wayne Koestenbaum, Penguin Group ISBN 0670030007

Between Dog and Wolf: Essays on Art and Politics David Levi Strauss. Published by autonomedia (1999) or [email protected] ISBN 1570270937

Negative Space: Manny Farber on the Movies Da Capo Press (1998) ISBN 0306808293

The Price Club John Miller, Les Presse du Reel (2000) ISBN 2840660393

The Ice Cream Social David Robbins, Purple Books/Feature Inc. (1998)

Bowling for Columbine Michael Moore (dir.) (2002)

Under Construction Missy Elliot, Elektra (2003) ASIN B00006LLNT

Rachel Harrison was born in 1966 in New York. She received her B.A. at Wesleyan University and lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. She is represented by Greene Naftali Gallery, New York where she will have her fourth solo show in the spring 2004, and Arndt & Partner Gallery in Berlin. Other recent solo exhibitions have taken place at the Milwaukee Art Museum; Kunsthall No 5, Bergen, Norway; and Oakville Gallery, Canada. Her work was recently on view in the Brighton Photo Biennale.

Her work has featured in numerous group exhibitions in galleries since the early nineties in New York including: P.S.1 Contemporary Art Institute, Thread Waxing Space, Feature, Matthew Marks Gallery and American Fine Arts Inc. Her work was first shown in Europe in Tight at the Tannery, London (1994); at Chantal Crousel, Paris (1999); in New York Projects at Delfina Project Space, London (2000); Telling Stories at Haus der Kunst, Munich (2002). A site specific installation was most recently exhibited in the Venice Biennale in The Structure of Survival curated by Carlos Basualdo (2003).

Major museum exhibitions include New Photography 14 (1998) Museum of Modern Art, Walker Evans And Co. (2001) MOMA and the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Whitney Biennale (2002). Her work has also been 

on view at the Brooklyn Museum, The Baltimore Museum, The Aldrich Museum, The Carnegie and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.


The File Notes with a hashtag in front of the number were published prior to the numerical system implemented on further printed file notes. As a result, there are duplicate numbered file notes. To differentiate, we have used a hashtag to indicate the original number of file note.

Andrew Renton is Director of Curating, Goldsmith’s College, London, and writes a column on contemporary art for the Evening Standard newspaper