World Wide Web / The Twilight Girls

(Helen Hyatt-Johnston and Jane Polkinghorne)
Institute of Contemporary Art Newtown (ICAN), Sydney
22 August – 7 September 2008

Four years later, following the success of their exhibition in 1938, the Surrealists again called upon Marcel Duchamp to organise their ‘First Papers of Surrealism’ exhibition in New York. In the first exhibition, Duchamp had organised to have a row of mannequins in the lobby which were at turns either decorated or disfigured by the artists involved. From the ceiling of the main hall he suspended more than a thousand coal bags over a coal brazier with only a single light bulb; visitors were given flashlights to negotiate the gloom. The oddity and obscurity of the setting earned its share of bustle and disquiet, and if not all the patrons left satisfied, the Surrealists themselves certainly were. In the 1942 exhibition, in the same spirit of obstruction, Duchamp intervened with over five hundred metres of string which was wound over and around the partitions with such copious fury as to make some of the works next to invisible.

Never quite intended as a work in its own right, Duchamp’s conceit is now the most remembered part of the exhibition and a major marker in the genealogy of installation art, well before this practice earned its name. It is in fact typical of his oeuvre on two counts, first as a derisory gesture that set out to undermine painting, and second as a device that draws attention to the impalpable space of the gallery setting through trying to bring the negative space, the space that surrounds, to life.

World Wide Web by the collaborative team, the Twilight Girls (Helen Hyatt-Johnston and Jane Polkinghorne), called Duchamp’s work inexorably to mind. Yet in this exhibition there was no other work of art either to hide or trivialise or complement, and the ragged tendrils hung throughout the gallery space were not of string but more directly connotative of the proteinaceous fibres that exude from a spider’s thorax. The gallery was thus transformed into a place of entrapment that appeared both desolate and airily festive, both horror-cove and party prank, or perhaps even some left-over from the set of a B-grade sci-fi movie about giant arachnoids. When we see webs bereft of the life that made them, they suggest neglect. And this is where another parallel with Duchamp’s classic work is exposed, namely that for the web to be the outdoor dinner-plate of the spider it serves as a tomb for any small creature that gets caught up in it. The exhibition space of ‘ICAN’ was therefore turned into a metaphoric tomb, a place of remnants and reminders, a shadow of what had been, the setting of insignificant deaths.

When physically within the space one became aware of the instability of the structure which, in its chaos, and its cluttered, riotous formlessness, stretched to every limit of the space. In its formlessness it had neither an inside nor an outside. Although a metaphor of habitation it seemed only to irritate or repel. And a few days detritus like dust had already begun to form around the sticky substance. It was perhaps a shame that it could not have been left longer to gather more gunk, as if the duty of the work was to attract everything unwelcome in the traditionally clean white gallery. In its glutinous intensity, one could also imagine the work installed within a much larger space with several adjoining rooms, a sinister labyrinth of lanky skeletal forms, a joyous mass of spittle in suspended animation.

It is worth noticing that Duchamp executed his work in 1942, at the height of Nazi domination of Europe which caused the mass-migration of Europeans to the East Coast of the United States. Although it is perhaps implausible to read this as a wartime work, the title World Wide Web and the physical content of the work itself, solicited a number of speculations, one especially related to the impalpable danger zones created through the climate of terrorism and the uncertainty as to whether our fears are justifiable. The obvious pun on spiders’ webs and the internet superhighway, together with the containment of these fibres within a relatively small enclosure, led one to think that the artists were making a sardonic comment on the ways in which we have become so beholden to digital communication as to be blinded by its innumerable abuses and sneaky manipulations. It is common knowledge that the Internet is used as an intricate tool of moles and propaganda in which its potential for telling the truth is constantly diverted and undetermined. Curious that Walter Benjamin made the same observation about film some seventy years ago.

The abstraction of the forms, in their drippy deliquescent immediacy, and the use of the word ‘world’ also allowed for some more far-reaching inferences—to the environment and, more philosophically, to the world as an imponderable tangle of causes, of interconnected events. In trying to gauge the infinite intricacy of human activity, Wittgenstein exclaimed, ‘How could human behaviour be described? Surely only by showing the actions of a variety of humans, as they are all mixed up together. Not what one man is doing now, but the whole hurly-burly ….’1 In this context it is fitting that the installation was a collaborative effort.

It is also relevant that the artists are both women. Cobwebs, also known as tangle-webs, are associated with the arachnid genus of theridiidae which, like most arachnids, are female-dominant. This grouping includes the deadly latrodectus, or widow spiders. Equipped with this knowledge, it was entirely up to you whether to chose to experience the installation as a metaphor for terrorism, for media abuses, for behaviourist aeteology, or simply as a vast quasi-abattoir set up by a pair of greedy female predators. 

notes: 

1. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Remarks on the Philosophy of Psychology, v.2, eds. G.E.M. Anscome and G.H. von Wright, Chicago U.P., Chicago and London, 1980, 97, #509.