Dan Armstrong

Lumens 3: Displacement
Centre for Contemporary Photography, Melbourne

Recent interventions into the history of Minimalism have sought to tease out its gendered implications. The monumental stackings of Carl Andre and the cage-like constructions of Robert Morris have been reinterpreted, not as immaculate statements of phenomenological purity, but as ciphers of masculinist power. A number of practitioners both in Australia and abroad, including Rachel Lachowicz and Mikala Dwyer, have sought to reveal the ways in which Minimalism's manipulation of material, shape and weight are imbricated in an economic logic that has been described as corporate. In seeking to break down what Anna C. Chave has suggested is Minimalism's rhetoric of power, these artists have feminized Minimalism, substituting cast lipstick, chocolate and garishly coloured fabrics for impersonal materials and finishes.

Although these recent practices are eclectic, they share a distrust for the claims of certainty and primacy that laced early writings on Morris and his peers. Dan Armstrong in his recent exhibition, is also questioning the limpid aspirations of the Minimalists. His installation Displacement like those of Lachowicz and Dwyer, postulates a contingent position that mocks claims for strong Gestalt sensations. He seeks instead an alignment of forms and energies that are faintly incongruous. However unlike much revisionist art, Armstrong is not interested in parodying the Minimal programme outright. Rather he is suggesting new possibilities by invoking the formative issues of an activated gallery space and the spectator as actor, while meshing these with the medium of photography.

The installation consists of four components each of which utilises a photographic transparency of skin positioned in front, or on top of, a neon tube. The tubes have been removed from their boxes and are secured in a number of configurations. One is fixed to the wall, another larger piece hangs from the ceiling. A third component positioned on the floor utilises five tubes in a serial progression. Common to all of these structures is the laying of the transparency in such a way as to interfere in the saturated excesses of the light. Whether mounted on perspex or placed directly onto the light, the film acts as a filament of skin tracing, and at the same time blocking, the outline to the tube. He thus creates an uneasy mollescence whereby the energy is trapped between light and image.

Armstrong's deliberate veiling of the fluorescent tube appears to be a direct challenge to Dan Flavin's formative manipulation of the same material in the 1960s. Flavin emphasised the power of the tube to saturate and thus to control space, forcefully repelling the viewer. His believe in the transcendental possibilities of artificial light and interest in the void, however, have no appeal for Armstrong who challenges the latent humanism of such aspirations. Armstrong offers an 'almost' void full of ambiguous spaces that lack an obvious cohesion. He actively deconstructs the artificial purity of Flavin's objects by undressing the technology that is hidden within its packaging. By revealing the pristine casing of the light boxes and displaying the tangled wires he renders the workings of the tubes as being aesthetically clumsy: broken yet still functional.

The result of this project is a sophisticated interplay of engagement and distancing. Certain carefully unresolved relations are set up within the objects. In two of the works the viewer only glimpses the alignment of light and image before the image is extinguished and the light escapes its partial barrier. In the larger wall-hanging the image remains constant, if obscured, by the vacuous light source. Likewise the content of the photographs suggests a portrait of the human body but so highly magnified as to be anatomically generic. Any attempt to attribute a literal meaning to the skin is frustrated by its lack of an obvious signification. Only in the floor piece does Armstrong use recognisable body parts- eyes- and this is perhaps the weakest, most didactic gesture in the installation. In the main there is no point of clarity here as competing languages bleed into one another.

If there is a particular strength in Displacement it is Armstrong 's investigation of the silences that occur in between incongruous materials and contexts. The statements he makes are not self-consciously authoritative, but cautious and transient, allowing the spectator the space to mend the various fractured postulations. This project also suggests that the chasm that has existed between photography and Minimalism is in fact a false one, predicated on a purity that is now fundamentally discredited.