Elizabeth Day, View from the Sixty-Third Floor, 1998, installation view, Artspace, Sydney.

Patrick Crogan, Lost in Space: Elizabeth Day’s View from the Sixty-Third Floor, 1998.

Elizabeth Day’s hydroponic installation triggers for me a mental association with the American 1960s television series, Lost in Space. The Robinson family, marooned on an unknown planet, use a hydroponic system to grow vegetables to live on. I have an image of Maureen Robinson, the archetypal suburban housewife/mother figure, tending the hydroponic garden along with the female children of the ‘pioneering’ American family unit. The combination of the futuristic projection of 1990s high-tech with the (already then) outmoded 1950s family values is typical of the show’s camp take on the future. The show was lost in time between America’s populuxe past and its off-world future as much as the cornball Robinsons were lost in space.

As the title, View From the 63rd Floor, suggests, Day’s installation of hydroponics and grass is also lost in space (and time), but not in the same camp mode as the 60s television series. Adopting the restrained mood of 90s post-conceptual art, Day’s View is productively, intriguingly disorienting from many perspectives. I wish to sketch out but a few of these here, particularly as they relate to the aesthetic horizons of Day’s installation practice. The title evokes the disconcerting appearance of gardens or small patches of vegetation within the space of a large metropolis seen from the height of a skyscraper. From this perspective, the city seems to swallow nature, inverting the normal sense of scale that pertains to the city-country relationship. Similarly, View brings the outside inside, miniaturising nature in the interior of the city’s Artspace, drawing it into this ‘white cube’ where the art object is revered (still) in cultural rites.

As a meditation on the ambivalent status of this ‘neutral zone’ for contemporary artistic practice, Day’s work furthers installation art’s questioning of the significance of the site for the experience of the artwork. This is a questioning which has not ceased to address the Minimalist phenomenological exploration of art and its extension and revision in the movements of Earth Art and Conceptual Art. View reverses Earth Art’s ‘liberation’ of the work, a liberation achieved (it was hoped) by removing art from the aesthetic and conceptual dead-end of the gallery space and reinventing it in the new context of the outside world. At the same time View insists on the conceptual agenda of this re-framing of biological life through the geometrical principles governing the work’s installation. The rectangular hydroponic unit is articulated within the gallery space through the frame of the grass root mat on which it stands, the ensemble alluding to the bland object deployments of Minimalism. Despite its evident engagement with these post-formalist art practices of the 60s, View evokes the ‘decay’ of the utopian aesthetic trajectory away from the gallery object, evidenced by the wholescale recuperation of post-formalist ‘non-art objects’ by the gallery system – itself a kind of life-support technology figured by Day’s hydroponic hothouse.

Nature is artificed in the hydroponic process, produced and regulated by an apparatus that could be thought of as an exemplification of the (post)modern technological project of the ‘closed system’ (Biosphere, C3I, Cybernetic’s feedback loop). The arrangement of the different coloured hybrid vegetables in the hydroponic tray evokes ironically the quasi-organicity of form in abstract expressionist painting. The classic Modernist declarations of the purity and autonomy of art come into focus in an ambivalent light through Day’s setting-to-order of nature. View seems to literalise the Modernist metaphor of art with a life of its own. On the other hand, it is difficult to reconcile the autonomy of artistic creation, theorised since Kant as a free play that exhibits ‘purposiveness without purpose’, with the closure brought to bear on the natural by the instrumental regime of hydroponics.

A final attempt at situating this enigmatic project, or tracing the enigmatic loss of position that it maintains between artistic discourses, movements and periods: View comes as something of a departure from Day’s previous work inasmuch as that work concerns itself with various modes of the fragmentary. This is evident in the materials utilised in the creation of her installations: found objects/trash (Shadow, 1993), disparate objects/materials (The Destiny of Objects, 1996), parts of unpicked garments/textile materials (The Unravelling of Form, 1995, Disintoxication, 1996). This concern has located Day’s project in the anti-purist, counter-tradition of Modernity (Dada, Surrealism, Pop, but also Fluxus, Neo-dada, and ‘post-modern’ appropriationist and post-conceptual work). This counter-tradition would oppose the romantic, organic conception of the artwork as an integral unity. In its treatment of natural organisms enclosed in an integrated system with its own modulated light source, water supply and nutrients, View appears to depart from this focus on the impure fragment, the discarded element. Instead, this is a work about closure, totality, the organism.

From another perspective, however, View can be seen to crystallise the latent impulse to restitution that underlies the celebration of the excluded fragment in this counter-tradition, thereby confirming its structural affinity to the High Modernism of the pure. The salvation of the discarded, the reclamation of the remains, the reintegration of the extraneous, this is the movement of dialectical negation that saves the fragment by transforming it into fullness (of meaning) and purity (of aesthetic form) – a movement that is, inevitably therefore, integral to romanticism. View’s ‘natural organisation’ parodies this secret affinity of High Modernism with its contrary other, even as this paradoxical parody entails View losing a clear sight of itself as part of the critical-aesthetic trajectory out of which it has grown.

See also:

Exhibition documentation of Elizabeth Day, View from the Sixty-Third Floor, 1998, Artspace, Sydney.