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  • Decoration and Detection
  • George Baker (bio)
Ann Burke Daly, The Automaton Olympia’s Cabinet of Curiosities. Installations at the Linda Kirkland Gallery, New York, and 57HOPE Gallery, Brooklyn, 1996.


. . . the moments when everyday life becomes the most vivid or tangible are the moments when most people find themselves living more than one life.

—Kristin Ross, ‘Watching the Detectives’

Why do some people, including myself, enjoy in certain novels, biographies, and historical works the representation of the ‘daily life’ of an epoch, of a character? Why this curiosity about petty details: schedules, habits, meals, lodging, clothing, etc.? Is it the hallucinatory relish of ‘reality’ (the very materiality of ‘that once existed’)? And is it not the fantasy itself which invokes the ‘detail,’ the tiny private scene, in which I can easily take my place? Are there, in short, ‘minor hysterics’ (these very readers) who receive bliss from a singular theater: not one of grandeur, but one of mediocrity (might there not be dreams, fantasies of mediocrity)?

—Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text

We are examining a bedroom. Perhaps two separate bedrooms. It is hard to tell. The video camera does not move; it does not circumnavigate this space; the room will not come into view. Instead the camera stutters, we see ten-second shots of this room, an aleatory sequence of various details. Our vantage point rests low to the ground; we always seem to be looking up at objects, as if the camera’s viewpoint—the synecdoche of our own—had descended to inhabit the estranged life-world of the child. (Estranged, because the supposed plenary experience of childhood actually takes place in a landscape of objects sized to the physical scale of adults; the child exists in a world that literally does not fit.) [End Page 50]

Two formal procedures govern Ann Daly’s most recent video project, The Automaton Olympia Throws Her Voice (1995–96), and both only seem to add to the disquietingly regressive affect of the whole: fragmentation and immobilization. The video presents the objects of the room as literal fragments; as they loom above or stretch out before our view, we realize that the camera has always positioned itself too close to these objects, cutting them off from the continuity of space that should surround them, sapping them of their autonomy, eliminating the experience of their very boundedness. Thus we are pushed down to the almost microscopic inspection of the weave of a bedspread, we are pressed close to the folds of a curtain, we hover in front of a mirror and yet see only its framing edge. The fragments continue to accumulate: the video presents us with a painting, yet concentrates only on its frame; rumpled sheets, so close to our view that we could be lying among them; a figurine decapitated by the framing edge so that we are pressed amorously close to its plaster breasts; the intricate form of cut crystal decanters and lamps; the wild flowers of a plaster molding.

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Figure 1.

Ann Burke Daly, The Automaton Olympia Throws Her Voice, 1996. Installation for three monitor/VCR units, without sound. Video still: Courtesy of the artist and Linda Kirkland Gallery, New York.

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Figure 2.

Ann Burke Daly, The Automaton Olympia Throws Her Voice, 1996. Installation for three monitor/VCR units, without sound. Video still: Courtesy of the artist and Linda Kirkland Gallery, New York.

A pattern has developed: in fact patterns have become the pattern. Decoration seems to be the governing scheme of the video’s selection process, and we become like the young John Ruskin, focusing steadily on the decorative details of this interior environment. The forms of nature completely dominate the decoration of the room: flowers on the sheets, ivy garlands around the mirror frame, abstract plants on the bedspread. And yet there is a counterpoint. The only shots in the video that do not seem too close to the objects, that do not necessarily fragment their views, are the shots that reach out beyond the interior, gazing out through the bedroom windows onto the greenery beyond.

This view onto ‘real’ nature presents...

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pp. 50-58
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