Perth Amboy touches upon seeing, material culture, and the supernatural. At things concrete or apparitional, everyone is looking at something –the friend of Barbie in a wheelchair, the Indian chief, the Chinese sage, the visitors, of whom one can see only their hands through a window at a local pilgrimage site in this installation by Rachel Harrison, recently on view at the MoMA. The difference between the natural and the supernatural depends upon a point of view.
As in a lot of art interpretation, particularly when it touches upon “the spiritual in art,” this work requires a lot of explanation and not a little reading. As described at the museum’s website, the exhibition is “[n]amed after a town in New Jersey where an apparition of the Virgin Mary was said to have appeared on the window of a two-story house, Rachel Harrison’s room-sized work Perth Amboy exemplifies a cross-disciplinary approach to making art. The work comprises 21 photographs, individual sculptural assemblages, and an open-ended labyrinth made from cardboard. It takes as its subject the basic acts of looking and seeing, which are central to any experience of visual art.
The trick is how to read the relationship between tacky figurines tucked inside the cardboard labyrinth and the photographs that surround the space, which are clearly meant to signal mystery. I can imagine two possible sequences. In one, you take in the spectral photographs as you first walk around the edge of the gallery space and then, and only then enter into the labyrinth. Or you walk through the labyrinth then skirt the supernatural edge of the space. But the sequence is not entirely discrete. While still inside, one catch a glimpse of the photographs over the edge of the cardboard edge of the labyrinth. Either way, this would be a theatrical piece of work which one can only view and grasp by moving into and through its space. There’s no other way to see (it).
Perhaps not unexpectedly, I did not catch much of this when I actually went through the exhibition. Only later, the digital photos help reconstruct for me my basic sense of the work in combination with this excellent essay, “Faith and Formalism: Rachel Harrison at MoMA” by Jessica Holmes. I’m recommending it for anyone interested in this particular piece or more generally in that phenomenon called religion/spirituality in contemporary art. My only quibble would be that none of this has anything to do whatsoever with what Holmes calls “the unequivocal.” I think that’s the very point made by the artist which Holmes, the critic, conveys otherwise so very well. You can read the whole thing here.
As per Holmes:
“‘People see what they want to see,’ Harrison has said of her own work, and here, it’s the act of looking itself that is being plumbed. In a neat metaphysical sleight of hand, Harrison sets up moments throughout the installation where the very action the viewer performs is also what she is challenged to consider. Upon carefully placed pedestals interspersed within the maze are coupled objects: in each case one half of the pair is distinctly figurative while the other represents a ‘work of art.’ On one pedestal, a ‘Becky, Friend of Barbie’ doll, sitting in a wheelchair and with a camera around her neck, gazes upon a chromogenic print tacked up on the wall before her. Elsewhere, situated on a mirrored base that reflects the lower half of a viewer’s body, a cheap figurine family of Dalmatian dogs stares up collectively at a common cardboard mailer, which has been bent so that it stands upright. A plaster bust of Marilyn Monroe — plunked into a Stor-All box and perched on a small, wheeled platform that has been shoved into a cardboard corner of the labyrinth — is unexpectedly moving. The objects themselves are garish and sometimes tawdry but in each instance Harrison investigates the visceral experience of looking at something, really stopping to consider it. This ‘something’ might be anything: a work of art, celebrity culture, the Divine. Suddenly the kitschy objects are suffused with a more profound resonance—like Marilyn, the classic icon of fashion and Hollywood who epitomizes what it is to be seen, slung low to the ground and sliding towards the informe on a warehouse dolly.
“And then there are the photographs. Taken from a vantage point somewhere across the street from the Collado family’s anointed window, most of the images capture believers who have come to witness the Blessed Virgin. Depending on the angle of light, their faces are not always visible through the glass; most often we see only hands pressed against the pane. The images evoke another biblical reference: the tale of Doubting Thomas. According to the story, after Jesus rose from the dead, he appeared to all the disciples but Thomas. When the others informed him of Christ’s return, Thomas replied he couldn’t believe it until he saw for himself. It’s from this story that the common idiom ‘seeing is believing’ originally derives, and which proves especially prescient to Perth Amboy.
“Non-believers may scoff at Virgin Mary sightings in unusual places, and the gullibility of those who are certain of their truth. But Harrison’s unexpectedly beautiful photographs reveal the poignancy of religious pareidolia, and the believers who are heartened by the perceived emanation. Faith is an intense, sometimes overwhelming emotion, and the sense of sight is often its most powerful incubator, regardless of whether the idol is religious, political, celebrity, aesthetic, or something else entirely. With Perth Amboy Harrison interrogates the unequivocal, and in so doing challenges viewers to examine their own dogmatic beliefs whatever they might be. What aspects of our own convictions might only be mirages on a pane of glass?”