We live in a visual age. Our pastimes are often dictated by those things we like to observe, in art galleries, at the cinema, at the zoo. In this surveillance-heavy era, our desire to watch often goes unchecked. Cameras dictate our day-to-day existence, we chase after images that fit our expectations and concepts of beauty, of nature, of gaze-worthiness. Our eyes are trained to seek out, capture, and fix on that which has meaning to us and could be potentially shared.
But are we critical enough of that which we look at and the position from which we look at it? We set definitions for the subject and the object, we break down the constructs of viewing in the hopes that we don’t fall into a pre-manipulated, voyeuristic trap. Men should not objectify women, tourists should seek the unbeaten path, no one should remain in the position of “the other”. It’s rude to stare.
Art has always offered the possibility of not taking these positions for granted. For as long as art and artists have existed, there have always also been the viewers. In this day and age, reflexivity has given way to self-reflexivity. Every voyeur is also a voyee. Through her art, Liselot van der Heijden explores these ever-evolving visual positionings. In her compact, spare, but multi-layered installations, the viewer always plays an integral part in the set-up and therefore, naturally, passivity is not an option.
Nature plays a big part in van der Heijden’s work. Drawing from an archive culled from nature documentaries, sightseeing trips, and media footage, the artist repeatedly reminds us through her work that even in our idyllic reception of “nature”, our position is always complicit, our intentions are not necessarily “pure”. In exhibitions such as “Aporia”, in which we are confronted by the a drawn-out version of a zebra’s last breath, or “Primate Visions”, in which the fourth walls of zoo habitats are broken down, or “Natural History”, in which observers of the dioramas at New York’s Museum of Natural History unwittingly project life into the life-like figures, anthropomorphism becomes an outdated concept in a far more complex mediation between the natural and the un-natural.
Originally from the Netherlands, the artist has been dividing her time between Amsterdam and New York for the last 15 years, and her bewilderment during the Bush Administration also found its way into her work. Shortly after 9/11, when Ari Fleischer memorably warned Americans to “watch what we say”, van der Heijden turned a watchful eye and ear on Bush, creating two video pieces: one consisting of a State of the Union address that has been stripped down to the words “America” (61 times) and another focusing on phrases such as “evil is real” and “God is near”, respectively, in addition to their accompanying standing ovations. Reflecting on mediation and complicity inevitably leads to reflecting on the political, and van der Heijden’s critical negotiation of the viewer can, in this case, also be applied to the citizen. (jn)