By Stephanie Wu
Amidst the busy network of overhead trolleybus wires, two massive LED screens are situated on one of the many glass-lined commercial buildings that define the landscape of Downtown Vancouver. With a height spanning two floors, the screens emit their bright light towards the ground for hundreds of pedestrians at Robson and Granville Streets, reflecting and illuminating the area’s commercial activity. Hosted by the City of Vancouver’s public art program, Platforms 2020: Public Works, these VanLive! Screens show Vancouver-based emerging artist Rina Lyshaug’s work, Narratives from the Emptiest Place (2019).
Lyshaug’s three-minute video challenges the boundaries of visually flattened space within the televisions’ frames. The two screens simultaneously present a timelapse video of a room with white walls and three shadowy open doorways. Lying lifelessly on the ground next to a column is a crumpled piece of white fabric. In the engulfing shadow of the second doorway is an unidentified rectangular object. Although the video plays between six or so advertisements (I lost count after the third, having stood at the crossway for over two hours waiting for each loop, each time unable to capture all the information), the imagery is quite difficult to grasp entirely on first impression. Light shines through what can only be presumed as a window, passing from left to right until the video fades out, followed by the video’s credits.
Utilizing its environment, Narratives from the Emptiest Place establishes itself as a carrier agent for thought digestion and a liminal object by providing clues but no answers. Lyshaug’s work brings up dichotomies of abundance (surroundings/space to view) and lack (footage/time to view), as well as the tensions between art and advertisement and art as advertisement. The latter dichotomy continues the investigation of art historian G.F. Hartlaub in his 1928 article, “Art as Advertising,” published in the MIT Press journal, Design Issues, in 1993.1
The lack of information about this room provided by the video, and the disorienting effects of the displays’ exaggerated size, allude to the idealistic neutrality of spaces in which we tend to view art, wherein time and context are overwritten or removed, albeit symbolically. The slow and somewhat restrictive passage of time in Narratives from the Emptiest Place, in contrast to the high-paced, suggestive world of commercial advertisements, is reminiscent of Michael Hardt’s Deleuzian analysis in Prison Time:
Each day is filled with precisely specified, required activities and appointments. Time moves at a snail’s pace; the day is never-ending…. Look back at those days from a distance, however, and they are indistinguishable. They fold into each other like the bellows of an accordian. Time spent seems to have no duration, no substance, because of the precise repetition of its component parts, the homogeneity, the lack of novelty.2
Emphasizing the space it occupies in the relationship between art and advertising, Narratives from the Emptiest Place also brings forth questions about ego and validation. As a liminal object (both literally and metaphorically), it outlines various forms of resource extraction: contemporary art as a form of cultural extraction, advertisement as a form of imaginative extraction, big box stores as material extraction, and so on. Narratives from the Emptiest Place validates the discussion around the connection between art, advertisement, and value extraction by giving visual form to an internalized, pseudo-anatomic relationship between the piece and its surroundings. However, by providing this access point, Narratives from the Emptiest Place ultimately reaches a point in which it becomes regressive, falling into the endless loop. Although endlessly reiterating value extraction as a base process in art-making sounds awfully bleak, Lyshuag’s work, regardless of its intentions, perhaps shows a desire for future-binding powers.
Looking once more at the giant screens projecting the work, a world just beyond its materiality comes into view. Just as one can see the sky reflected in the windows of a house, the work incites a similar effect in the viewer’s subconscious. The video’s transversive ray of light acts as a visual guide for viewers throughout, strongly contrasted by a different passage of time in its external environment. Of course, the future I want to look into through Emptiest Place is only one facet of its content’s effects, as an object breaking the linear time suggested by the rising and setting sun behind the shopping centre at 798 Granville Street. The ray of light is used as a strategy to fill the space depicted with the potential for narrative by maintaining a sense of familiarity, however it offers much more than this when it is contrasted to its “natural” (referring to a linear idea that flows from past, to present, then future) counterpart marked by the sun rising and setting behind the building Narratives from the Emptiest Place is situated.
By utilizing the indeterminacy built upon the contrast between the work and its surroundings, Narrative of the Emptiest Place skillfully uses a contemporary art dialect to open up a conversation about the concept of time and place in an age of speculative advertisement. This allows the work to traverse into the dialogue around the post-contemporary time complex by openly displaying a breakage of time. It mainly traverses one of the qualities that distinctly differentiates conversations around contemporary and post-contemporary art (another source of tension). Post-contemporary, to paraphrase Austrian philosopher Arman Avanessian from both writing and lectures, refers to a state in which time is not perceived as linear, the future occurs before the present, and the future and past both dictate the present (time is disjunct). I believe that by breaking the sequence of time, as well as advertisements referring to “ideal” living conditions, the work starts a dialogue into the psychological functions of speculative advertising.
Beyond the daylight passing through the frame, Narratives from the Emptiest Place provides no specific explanation for when human activity was last seen in its austere setting, inciting a sense of comfort and curiosity while maintaining a tension between familiarity and the unknown. The work is astute in how it considers and questions the viewer’s sense of imagination. Aware of the fact that it is overlooking a busy public space, it invites the viewer to enter through the television. It may be argued that contemporary technologies, imbued with algorithms to cater to our preferences of consumption, surpass traditional television broadcasting in this aspect. To a certain extent they do, but only if we turn a blind eye to how these algorithms are used for advertising. Rather, the work directs our gaze to our very own insatiable need for pleasure, bringing us back to the land of imagination—commercial spaces, highly dependent on mise-en-scène, almost so familiar that we forget where we are.
Similarly, the cycle of chasing the pleasurable unknown also brings forth questions about the very idea of domesticity, and how to refuse flat, singular understandings of belonging that do not account for personal histories and sensibilities. This effect seems to ask the viewer to reconsider the uncertainties of the spaces they occupy, at that moment and beyond, further invoking the intrigue of an environment’s fragmented representation. In this sense, Lyshaug’s narrative is an image that comes full circle, closing the distance between the politics of consumerism and the construction of the everyday. The emptiest place is the space that only exists in the conditions of the imagination, and which may only be borne of tensions between ideologies.
Carefully employing and toying with objects and scenes of familiarity, such as the functions and settings of (art as) advertisement, visual cues from architecture and our everyday environments, as well as changes in our understandings of time, Narratives from the Emptiest Place offers us a platform to question imagery in advertisements. It also demands our absolute attention to contemplate both larger and more personal infrastructural realities through its materialities and absences. Lyshaug’s video work succeeds precisely because its threads are tightly woven into many different layers of histories and futures, serving as a springboard into many different discussions around art, commercial advertisement, time, and space through the emptiness.
- Hartlaub, G.F. “Art as Advertising (1928).” Design Issues 9, no. 2 (1993): 72-76. doi:10.2307/1511678.
- Michael Hardt, “Prison Time,” Yale French Studies, no. 91, 1997, p. 65.
Narratives from the Emptiest Place by Rina Lyshaug ran from October 5 to November 1, 2020, as part of the City of Vancouver’s Platforms 2020: Public Works.
Feature Image: Street view of Narratives from the Emptiest Place, 2019 by Rina Lyshaug. Photo and Vimeo video used with permission of the artist.