Michael Zansky | Looking is Believing

Updated: Sep 16, 2018

Michael Zansky’s American Panopticon is an ongoing project, in which a series of installations investigate the relationship between karma and authority—that is to say, between personal and idiosyncratic fatalism, and institutional and societal directives. This project has been reinvented numerous times, at Gigantic Art Space in New York, The Arco Art Fair in Madrid, and The Edsvik Konsthalle in Stockholm. In each of instance Zansky has selected various themes and concepts from the main tautology behind Jeremy Bentham’s concept of the Panopticon and arranged the various elements of his installation according to architectural and curatorial demands.

The Panopticon is a type of institutional building designed by English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham in the late eighteenth century. The concept of the design is to allow an observer to observe inmates of an institution without them being able to tell whether or not they are being watched. The design consists of a circular structure with an "inspection house" at its centre, from which the managers or staff of the institution are able to watch the inmates, who are stationed around the perimeter. Bentham himself described the Panopticon as "a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example. (Bentham, Jeremy. Panopticon (Preface). In Miran Bozovic (ed.), The Panopticon Writings, London: Verso, 1995, 29-95). Although the Panopticon prison design did not come to fruition during Bentham's time, it has been seen as an important development. It was invoked by Michel Foucault (in Discipline and Punish) as metaphor for modern "disciplinary" societies and their pervasive inclination to observe and normalise. Foucault's argument is that discipline creates "docile bodies", ideal for the new economics, politics and warfare of the modern industrial age—bodies that function in factories, ordered military regiments, and school classrooms. But, to construct docile bodies the disciplinary institutions must be able to (a) constantly observe and record the bodies they control and (b) ensure the internalization of the disciplinary individuality within the bodies being controlled. That is, discipline must come about without excessive force through careful observation, and molding of the bodies into the correct form through this observation. This requires a particular form of institution, exemplified, Foucault argues, by Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon. It allowed for constant observation characterized by an "unequal gaze"; the constant possibility of observation. Perhaps the most important feature of the panopticon was that it was specifically designed so that the prisoner could never be sure whether they were being observed at any moment. The unequal gaze caused the internalization of disciplinary individuality, and the docile body required of its inmates. This means one is less likely to break rules or laws if they believe they are being watched, even if they are not. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Discipline_and_Punish_)

Yet how does this translate into an esthetic event? How do we manage to engage ourselves with the spectacle he provides if we feel that our every act is observed and judged? Doesn’t the act of looking at art predicated by a certain leisurely freedom? By enveloping us with phenomenological installations which manifest their ideological basis but remain putatively indifferent. Zansky’s American Panopticon is characterized by a passive yet loaded state of existence in which everything is in motion, intermittently illuminated, creating interdependent spectacles that draw our attention to a procession of scenes. The viewer inhales the air of mystery animated by a single object reflected in the convex surveillance mirrors, becoming party to aesthetic and symbolic power. One is guided not only into a moment of esthetic recognition but into a world-view.

Zansky gives us the canine resurrection; the second gallery becomes a Plato's Cave, where a projected shadow dog seizes the enormous space with a Lockean sense of property. Again, a lensed arrangement of a urethane dog, glass globe, surveillance mirrors, and carved wood elements provide the earthly elements. The globe, a reference perhaps to the Judgment of Paris, the mirror to Van Eyck's "Arnolfini Portrait," the wood a nod to The Crucifixion. A Bat-Signal searchlight traces out arcs on the far wall, referencing celebrity culture as well as a metaphysical search for enlightenment. The mirror, like our position when viewing "Las Meninas" allows us to see the actors in the scene, but not ourselves; the mirrors suggest temporal, earthly existence and Vanity. We are positioned so that we only see the impure, shadow version of the reincarnated dog, moving obliquely across the cavernous wall. This mise–en-scene suggests a primitive, or primal, version of what the Dominican Fra Michele da Carcano suggested was of essential importance to art with regard to our enlightenment. "On account of the ignorance of simple people, so that those who can't read…can yet learn…of our salvation," Carcano wrote in 1492, and "Images [are] introduced because many cannot retain in their memories what they hear, but they do remember if they see." The object of the dog, placed in illuminated isolation in the center of the room, is radically contrasted with its shadow, which is refracted and projected on the wall. From afar we see only a slim and penitent creature that exists to fulfill a specific bidding, whether as a beast of burden or as man’s best friend.

In Zansky’s drawings extraneous shadows are cut away to reveal the focus of the spotlight. These realistic renderings of the abstract space created with the elements of his installations are a further investigation of perspective; he allows the viewer to focus on concept by arresting the action. Authority controls, demands, or determines; while Karma broadly names the universal principle of cause and effect, action and reaction, that governs all life. In the case of Michael Zansky’s American Panopticon, these concepts are unified.

Zansky combines paradox and spectacle with an air toward transcendence: how is it that a person observing an event differs from someone observing another person at authoritarian remove? The difference is in the contrast between aesthetic perception and institutionalized surveillance. What is innately different is the dynamic character of spectacle: who is doing the looking, and how their attention is esthetically determined. Having contemplated a mystery of such implied magnitude we are forever conscious that looking, and not seeing, is believing.

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