The pairing of video and water goes back a long way, both as a motif and in terms of hardware: Fabrizio Plessi and Bill Viola, for example, have not only produced numerous video works involving underwater footage, but have also used monitors whose form recalls aquariums. Outside of galleries, too, underwater videos are a staple of visual muzak, while in living rooms, gently illuminated fish tanks provide a counterpart to the blue glow of the television set – a world behind glass, close but beyond reach.
In his show at Galerie Daniel Buchholz’ two spaces in Cologne, entitled ‘Deep Sea Vaudeo’, Simon Denny, who studied at the Städelschule in Frankfurt, pursued this interest in video and water. He arranged television stands, shelving units and giant televisions into six blocks, one after the other, each with its screen facing the back of the set in front of it. The various models – from one 50 centimetres deep to the smaller monitors stacked precisely on top of one another – played different footage: images from sales displays, relaxation videos, brightly coloured underwater footage of shoals of fish and coral reefs. Because the monitors stood so close together, the result was less a many-windowed architecture (as in the work of Nam June Paik, for example) than a kind of reef that could be walked around like tanks at an aquarium. Disconcertingly, the posters assigned to each device described not the flora and fauna of the submarine worlds in the films, but the technical specifications of the equipment on which they are presented.
At the gallery’s second location, the titles of Denny’s six video sculptures included the manufacturers’ names, such as Half Deep Sea Monitor Thomson or Half Deep Sea Monitor Toshiba (all works 2009). In another series, pixelated rectangles were lined up behind one another, cordoned off by a thick rope, but this time they were Inkjet prints on canvas – flat constructions on metal supports, imitating the dimensions of television sets. Next to this, six Perspex tanks, placed on freestanding plinths, looked almost dramatic, as if Denny had translated his footage back into miniscule, three-dimensional stages. The brightly coloured cubes appeared to be underwater environments for marine life, like elegant models for interiors. A chrome-plated rod with a piece of synthetic fish stuck on the end protruded from Half Deep Sea Video Tevion, like a lost harpoon. In front of one of these works, the viewer’s face and the cast of the dead fish may suddenly and ominously meet, mirroring each other eye to eye. (Denny likes to tell the story of how, once the fish had served as the model for his cast, he prepared it and ate it for supper.)
At the same time, the installations remain boxes filled with strange stuff, recalling the works of Joseph Cornell and George Brecht. ‘Deep Sea Vaudeo’ was also recorded on video: a well-known German television actress, Theresa Underberg, announced the exhibition by reading the text from the gallery information sheet written by Denny himself, while in the recording studio she was surrounded by the television sculptures, as if she were a presenter on a teleshopping programme. This brings us full-circle, but instead of a closed loop, the circle in question never quite settles: nature and media, signified and signifier, depiction and representation all swirl together in an indissoluble spiral. What looks almost banal or cobbled together, is a multi-layered farewell to the triangular relationship between performance, sculpture and media art – a relationship now overtaken by flat screens, computer monitors and online personas.