BY Fabrice Stroun in Reviews | 07 JUN 03
Featured in
Issue 76

Amy O'Neill, Emmanuel Piguet

Mamco/ Centre d'edition contemporaine, Geneva, Switzerland

BY Fabrice Stroun in Reviews | 07 JUN 03

At Mamco (Geneva's Musée d'Art Moderne et Contemporain) Amy O'Neill installed a bunker, complete with ventilation and power generator. After crossing an empty room the visitor stumbled upon what appeared to be the material remnants of a nightmare. From the far corner a psychedelic motif composed of hundreds of Spirograph drawings was irradiated by fluorescent light. Seen through the 3D novelty glasses made available at the entrance to the bunker, these repetitive, highly detailed graphics hovered in space while projecting multicoloured speckles across the room. Rows of cans were stacked against the wall. Their lids, punctured and covered with Day-Glo paint, obviously have served as templates for the mural. Small abstract watercolours pinned next to the bed featured an empty dark centre, no doubt the 'eye of god' that is the title of the piece (Ojo de Dios, 2003) and of the show - the very same eye apparent in the centre of the larger fluorescent motif, which seemed to be wherever you turned. Maybe the scribbled warning at the entrance cautioning us to wear the glasses was not to be taken lightly after all.

The atmosphere of dread inside the bunker demanded a suspension of disbelief that was as playful as it was critical. Disposable 3D novelty glasses? In the past O'Neill has resorted to employing such pyrotechnics as a smoke machine (Smoking Basement Bar, 1998) and hiding beneath a table and rattling it as people passed it (Post-Prom, 1999). Every object in 'Ojo de Dios' was a prop of sorts. You could make a cinematic parallel with certain horror films from the 1970s, when filmmakers such as George Romero and John Carpenter directed dark satires of a paranoid American society still traumatized by the Vietnam war. Made before the medium's conversion to digital imagery, their films relied on live special effects, drawing the spectator into terrifying scenarios whose artificiality remained wholly transparent.

At the Centre d'édition contemporaine O'Neill co-designed, with Emmanuel Piguet, dm-melkenburg (2003), a custom level for Unreal, a high-adrenaline, online, shoot'em-up game. Faithful to the last detail, this map takes as its model the high-security prison Mecklenburg (the misspelling in the work's title is intended) in Boydton, Virginia, where many inmates currently await execution. This digital recreation allows the player to move through a succession of cells, corridors and various execution rooms, containing a gas chamber, an electric chair and a lethal injection table. The work is a fully-functional synthetic reality, and as game theorist Eric Zimmerman has described, the pleasure of playing a video game derives not just from its ability to transport the player into an immersive, illusionistic setting, but also from the self-consciousness it generates. Participatory in nature, games intrinsically make the viewer aware of their structure, of their perceptual and narrative workings, heightening the socio-political reality in which they are imbedded.

Other recent large-scale installations by the artist included a restaurant (Tuba City Truck Stop Cafe, 2002) and a shooting gallery (Paradice City, 2002) - again, the misspelling is intentional. Having primarily focused her attention on the cultural idioms of America's vast no-man's land of highways and small-town fairgrounds, the artist (an American living in Switzerland) has recently begun to weave local folklore into her other-worldly scenes. In the past few years she has produced drawings of chalets and a vitrine reminding the population of Geneva that the idea of Frankenstein had terrorized a neighbourhood of the city 100 years ago (Frankenstein Conquers The Seven Wonders Of The World, 2000). In Ojo de Dios the uncanny is bound to the Swiss landscape, where every house hides a bunker that, until ten years ago, had by law to be stocked in preparation for the nuclear apocalypse. While this work reactivates Cold War anxieties and counter-culture traumas, dm-melkenburg confronts us with the tools of an even bleaker scenario, if only because it is ongoing. One cannot help but take into account retrospectively the fact that both exhibitions were conceived during the recent inexorable march to war. Faced with the daily spectacle of suffering brought about by the war in Iraq, the laughter that resonates throughout the emptiness of O'Neill's deserted spaces seem all the more strident.

Fabrice Stroun is the director of Kunsthalle Bern. He lives in Bern.