Vikky Alexander, Lake in the Woods, 1986. Installation view, Cash/Newhouse Gallery, New York. 

                                          Vikky Alexander, Lake in the Woods, 1986. Installation view, Cash/Newhouse Gallery, New York. 


Unnatural Horizon

For the installation Lake in the Woods (1986), Vikky Alexander covered one of the walls of the New York Cash/Newhouse Gallery with a landscape photomural similar to the type found on the walls of confined spaces—hospitals or dentists’ waiting rooms, backdrops of dive bars, or suburban basement dens  —as a comforting escape toward an imaginary outside. On the opposing wall, the artist placed simulated wood panels with a band of inlaid mirrors that allowed the viewer to see details of this landscape and to glance at their reflections. Alexander retrospectively explained that the idea of such a bipartite scenography came to her as the adequate response to the constraints of the site itself: a long corridor flanked by zigzagging irregular walls that lead to the gallery office. Beyond accentuating the characteristics of the site, she also aimed to offer a counterbalance to the return of figuration and of the heroic artistic subjectivity that dominated the market at this particular moment (Julian Schnabel, David Salle, German neoexpressionism, Italian transavanguardia, etc.)[1]. Alexander said that collectors passed through the gallery, seemingly without seeing anything and walking directly to the office. Bemused, they asked the staff why there was no exhibition[2]. Over a half decade later, Lake in the Woods would be acquired by the Vancouver Art Gallery, and this entry into the museum would correct the near-absence of the artwork’s reception during the inaugural presentation in 1986[3]. Throughout the 1980s, by highlighting the dialectic between floating signifiers ("pictures") and an architectural container, Alexander's work distanced itself from language-based conceptualism of the previous decade. However, she and her peers did not abandon the use of analytical methods. These artists rather constructed an interface that superimposed an awareness of the material parameters of the event of the exhibition as it then stood, with the recognition of an intermediary psychic site[4].

In Alexander’s work, this dialectic could be summarized by the figure of the horizon, which opens itself onto a vista announcing the expectation of an unseen territory, and a future time that one can invest, but then reveals the limit of the image’s surface, and its depth, as an already colonized territory. The aim of displaying nature “inside” from the scientific diorama and the 19th century arcades to augmented reality, sought to free the viewer by giving the illusion of an outside of capitalism in the space of consumption itself. In 1992, Alexander gathered views from the West Edmonton Mall indicating that all open portions of the sprawling building, even the transparent partitions, are in fact completely saturated with the signs of the commodity. As soon as we cast our gaze somewhere, believing that we are getting out of an abyss, our eye is deported into a second reflection, which reveals in it a new closed universe, and ultimately, an abstract, unintelligible detail confused with the grain of the photograph. After the West Edmonton Mall photographic series Alexander looked at other architectural systems of enclosed leisure (Walt Disney World (1992), Las Vegas (1995)). 

As a response to an open invitation L’escalier sent to Alexander almost a year ago, the artist chose to take into account once again the constraints of the place of display she was offered: a room in a Montreal apartment, transformed into a gallery. In preliminary discussions, there was talk of updating one of these 1980s installations using readymade photomurals and mirrors, adding another chapter to an ongoing reassessment of her work from this period[5]. We agreed however that it would be more appropriate to present a recent work, while highlighting the discursive resonance of the reiteration of previous projects in Alexander's practice since the 1990s. These exchanges with Alexander gave way to the possibility to think about the complexity of the reprint, echoing the operation of rephotography of her early works. 

In the field of literature, the reprint makes an unavailable book accessible to a readership potentially unfamiliar with the author's work, creating a new occasion to discover a text. Conversely, within the field of visual arts, the operation of putting a photographic print into circulation, subsequent to an exhausted edition, is circumscribed by the principle of scarcity of the market. Echoing some parameters of the reprint, the technical function of the exhibition copy remains contingent on the lapse of time of a single presentation offered for consideration. However, these two distinct instances differ from a staged re-exhibition, because in its afterlife as reprint it does not have to drag with it the ruins of the context of an inaugural presentation. Thus, it can emerge from the black hole of history without alluding directly to a critical apparatus.

By operating a project space gallery and modest publishing wing, we collectively tackled the problem of a repetition of the logic of the gallery or the alternative artist-run centre interpolated in an apartment. In fact, each room of such a living space already contains a program that determines its uses. To “renovate" part of a living room with fluorescent lighting; adds a function to the already inhabited dwelling. Although momentarily open to the public, but falsely democratic, the commercial gallery also belongs to the register of an experience of the privacy of others, through the visual foils of publicity. In principle, anyone can see the exhibitions, and momentarily access the luxury goods on display, but the fact remains that this same audience whose affective surplus labor is ultimately exploited as “extras,” do not participate in later transactions that occur behind closed doors. The staging of the "gallery" in an apartment as a parenthesis of access calls for two implicit performances: that of the docent who provides commentary about the exhibition, filling in the gaps where information may be lacking; and that of the host that substitutes in for the absent artist/curator. Both ghostly recall a third performance: that of the real estate agent, entering a house with potential buyers, making the inhabitants part and parcel of the décor while they go on with their lives. 

In 2005, Alexander photographed the pre-sale display room of a condominium project by the real-estate developer Bob Rennie before they were opened to the public. She captured segments of each room—living room, dining room, kitchen, bedroom—from all angles. Then at the stage of selecting which images to print, she retained mainly the sample showing the gaps within this documentary process. She used a 35mm camera without wide-angle lens, and limited herself to capturing the space with only the ambient light. These “model suites” were built to give the potential homeowner an overview of the landscape as if he was beholding the street from the top penthouse. To do this, the marketers of the home reduced the scale of the actual showroom by two-thirds, and various optical effects were deployed so that the narrowness of this set within an artificial enclosure was less noticeable. In each image, one sees window bays in the background which offer improbable, yet clichéd, views of the city and the mountain vistas further off in the horizon. In fact, these windows are backlit boxes, immediately evoking the ones used by Jeff Wall between the late 1970s and the early 1990s. Although Wall was not the only one to make use of this technology, he sanctioned its value/form within the field of art, first by diverting it of its initial advertising function (as a “delivery system” as he called it), and then using it as a substrate for large scale allegorical tableaux. With Model Suites, one could argue that Alexander puts this artifact back in its place. By being woven once more into the fabric of everyday life, the boxes becomes an accessory or prop, ordinary, without transcendence, just like the wallpaper of Lake in the Woods at the Cash/Newhouse gallery.

The four parts of Model Suite build a sequence that more or less corresponds to the incongruous experience of visiting one condominium. We could describe them as follows, neglecting of course many details. Overview sets the scene and shows an open area linking most of the rooms. An imposing and inelegant television has been placed behind the partition separating the kitchen from the living room, whose presence surprises here, because in 2005, early examples of flat screen televisions already existed. With Dining Room, the camera is located on a table-like surface whose boundaries remain unclear in the foreground, and which reflects part of the buildings represented in the backlit boxes. The mirrored wall of the right portion of the image also duplicates this false escape to the outside. On the table is a bowl filled with disproportionately sized citrus fruits, forming a decorative pyramid. Like the backlit boxes, this accessory seems grafted there only to indicate that the virtual space could be inhabited. In Bedroom, a door opens to an oblong lamp, almost sculptural, whose light spectrum is redoubled by another reflecting wall. In the centre of the picture, a closet-like room opens to the space that would be allotted for a bed, and we see again a section of the backlit boxes. Looking closer, however, we notice that the table on the right is reflected in a shimmering surface without contour. In fact, the bed was out of the field of vision scanned by the camera. Illusively frontal, the image turns out to be a lateral point of view. Finally, Sliding Door superimposes the back-lit boxes and the transparent doors, almost eclipsing the locale of the apartment itself.

In 2017, this work was reprinted on self-adhesive vinyl and recessed into the windows of the Roundhouse Sky train Station in Vancouver's Yaletown neighborhood[6]. This iteration could momentarily be confused with advertising posters of real estate developers, had it not been for the absence of any slogans or branding insignias and logotypes. The portions of the vinyl film divide the image, while also separating the landscape in the middle, redoubling (and perhaps pastiching) the famous Brechtian cut of the panels of back-lit boxes of the works of Jeff Wall, mentioned previously. This vinyl is designed to withstand the weather, and, like the lightbox, should be seen from afar. The transition from an intermediate format to another scale, larger than the referent itself, decreases the resolution and enlarges the digitized grain of the 35 mm negative. Closely observed, this grain reaches an almost gaseous state, so that the green fluorescent light, emanating from the backlit boxes, mixes with the particles of the orange incandescent lighting coming from the dimmed lamps photographed in the rooms.

For the occasion of the invitation to show at L’escalier, this time Alexander enlarged Bedroom (the initial framed print was 101.5 x 152 cm) so that it corresponds to the surface of a wall in the apartment. The visitor reaches the exhibition site after having crossed the threshold of the corridor. This display space is located behind an office where the tenant usually works during the day. The transitional areas—vestibule, corridor—and the “gallery” could be completely partitioned, and thus separated from the other functional part of the living quarters. We chose instead to have all the rooms communicating, but the visitor can however distinguish their functions by characteristics similar to formal components of Alexander’s work: the fluorescent lighting that illuminates the section dedicated to art, and the incandescent light of the dining room of the tenant.

Between 2005, the year that Alexander’s series were made and 2017, several crises have redefined the links between the materiality of architecture and real estate speculation. But we must refer to a broader temporal parenthesis, opening well before 2005, to cross the trajectory of Alexander's research with the evolution of the discourse on economic abstraction, heterotopic spaces and architectural history. In 1992, when Alexander was working on her series on the West Edmonton Mall, the French anthropologist Marc Augé published his book Non-Places : Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity[7]. With the methods of his discipline, Augé departed from Michel Foucault’s Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias essay[8] and insisted on the transactional nature of liminality in these completely functionalized architectures of consumption. One often passes there to establish a contact with a machine or an agent—cashier or attendant—whose work is then reduced to the digital recording of a good or a service exchanged for money. Conversely, other "non-places" evoked by Augé are luxurious locales usually in remote areas of the world, and loaded with kitsch decor veiling those depersonalized transactions. However, all the pleasures that are offered at Disneyworld or Las Vegas still originate from black boxes folded on themselves in the shadow of the spectacle, canceling furthermore the possibility of an outside. One could say that Augé described these non-places by confining himself to language, while Alexander raises the problem of their photographic representation and the desires they in turn generate. In this respect, it is worth mentioning that during the second half of the 1990s when Alexander was producing her houses of glass series starting with The West Edmonton Mall, the historian Beatriz Colomina circumvented the prevalence of the text on the image and the opposition of art to mass culture in the study of modern architecture[9]. She posed that the interior in the work of le Corbusier and Adolph Loos has relied on the mediation of advertising, film and photography to script the movements and behaviours of subjects that could live in it and make use of it in the future.

It must be said that the dialectic of place and non-place, posed by Augé in the early 1990s, no longer holds, because the space we are given to perceive, either by going through it or by browsing its representations, now aspires to become a form of abstract transient capital, dissociated from a location. More recently, the philosopher Beatriz Preciado continues a reflection in the wake of Colomina, focusing this time on the architecturally "derivative" oeuvre of Playboy magazine founder Hugh Hefner, who conceived of a series of closed domestic systems, placing in the centre a “bachelor pad” connected to a media universe of continuously broadcasted fantasies.[10] With this case study, Preciado shows that Hefner's hypermediatized “pornocratic” utopias prefigures the more common contemporary phenomenon of isolation brought about by social media. The single person dwelling is designed to filter the tenants’ attachments to others by interposed electronic platforms, becoming the social world. However, today, the possibility that a condominium unit, with its styled furniture and other accessories, remains empty, is no longer the exception of financial speculation. Alongside the virtual decor of the model apartment, captured by Alexander, we must approach the character Bob Rennie himself, who, without being the subject of the image, continues to haunt it. There is no need to reiterate his biography, but suffice it to say that the presence of his company in Vancouver has simultaneously influenced the real estate as well as the luxury (read art) asset markets. In this sense, it is difficult to look at Bedroom and think of it at the moment when it was discovered in 2005, since the city has been radically transformed, pierced so to say by these enclosures, to become almost uninhabitable for the wider population.

It is however important to see the work, rather than just talk about it. Alexander offers, once again here, some visual ambivalence that we could quickly brush away, in order to substitute the right (Marxist) analysis. Before Bedroom, we stand back and then, near the blown up photograph, our vision feels blurred. The enlarged grain of the print emits heat that could momentarily overcome the coldness of the fluorescent-lit gallery and the represented dwelling space at the surface of one of its walls. We are in turn repelled and fascinated, while this oscillation of our feelings is based largely on our exclusion from a space of speculation. Positing our experience on the fringes of the economic discourse, Alexander rather fixes us to her side, within the perimeter of the point of view that she has chosen to exhibit, precisely designating the lack that gnaws away at these architectures of excess, from within.

- Vincent Bonin, Montreal November 2017. 


[1] Vikky Alexander, email to the author, October 30th, 2017.

[2] Ibid.

[3] See Gary Dufour, Vikky Alexander: Lake in the Woods (Vancouver: Vancouver Art Gallery, 1993).

[4] Her works made between 1981 and 1983 had been shown at Cooper Cole gallery, Toronto (The Temptation of Saint Anthony) in 2016, and in 2017 at the gallery Downs and Ross, New York. See Amy Zion, « Vikky Alexander: Down and Ross », Frieze (June, July 2017):

[5] Unnatural Horizon, the title given by Alexander to the event of reprinting one of her works at L’escalier, refers to the book by Allen S. Weiss addressing the contradictions of landscape as a representation of nature. See: Allen S. Weiss, Unnatural Horizons: Paradox and Contradiction in Landscape Architecture (Hudson: Princeton Architectural Press, 1998).  

[6] The work has been reprinted in the framework of a group exhibition entitled

Song of the Open Road at The Contemporary Art Gallery, Vancouver (April 1st -  June 17th , 2017).

[7] Marc Augé, Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity (New York: Verso, 1995). Initially published in 1992.

[8] Michel Foucault, “Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias” in Rethinking Architecture: A Reader in Cultural Theory. Edited by Neil Leach (New York: Routledge, 1997), pp. 330-336. Initially published in French in 1984.

[9] Beatriz Colomina, Privacy and Publicity: Modern Architecture as Mass Media (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1994).

[10] Beatriz Preciado, Pornotopia: An Essay on Playboy’s Architecture and Biopolitics (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2014). Initially published in 2011.