The first thing one noticed upon visiting Irit Batsry's installation To Leave and To Take at Oboro was the hundreds of clear plastic gloves, each filled with uncooked grains of rice, piled in trench like formations on the gallery floor. These were lit by white footlights that cast shadows pronouncing and exaggerating their forms. Above these, projected on the walls and columns of the gallery, were video images of a hand taking grains of rice from one small pile and leaving them on another. Rounding the corner of the gallery and looking into a large alcove one saw a larger slow motion video projection showing alternately two women, one old, one younger, eating on the streets of an Indian city. The contrast between these women's careful endeavours to replenish themselves with the meagrest of nourishment and the abundance of rice in the gallery was striking
Irit Batsry is well known in media art circles for the carefully crafted experimental video tapes she has been producing since the early eighties. To Leave and To Take , which continues Batsry's accompanying practise as an installation artist, was curated by Valérie Lamontagne for Oboro. Upon closer examination of the installation references to the inherent properties of the video medium surface. The structure of the rice hands reflects the the structure of the electronic image, the atomisation of the form into discrete units. The hands are composed of grains of rice, the images (of the women, of the hands and rice) are composed of luminous pixels. As a video image breaks up into random points of light when the electronic signal is weak or distorted so the form of the hands break down into random white grains as time and the movement of visitors in the gallery disturb the careful arrangement of the rice.
At one point in the large video projection an old woman is shown carefully scraping food from a ceramic cup; we see her face and her hands, her gestures as she chews and swallows the small portions she has retrieved from the vessel. We know nothing of this woman beyond the fragments of her body projected on the gallery wall. We know nothing of her life before or after this decelerated glimpse of this essential yet banal ritual. Batsry's video recording brings us a fleeting snapshot of an unremarkable moment in one woman's life. Here Batsry shows technological representation as a process of rendering a voiceless subject, (the installation is silent), almost invisible. The video apparatus effectively effaces a subject by projecting an empty representation of her fragmented image.
This effect of vanished subjects recalls Batsry's video tape work - specifically the trilogy Passage to Utopia which was shown at the Cinémathèque québecoise during the exhibition. The complex video production technique Batsry uses in this cycle includes the processing of the moving image so as to render it translucent; her video tapes are peopled with ghost figures who blend into the texture of the video screen. People, who through a shifting field of focus, become unrecognisable forms, ink blots floating over a luminous ground. Like unstable cyber bodies, Batsry's videographic marks are electronic traces of passage that can shift in and out of signifying human presence.
In Traces of a Presence to Come, the final part of the trilogy, the ephemeral nature of the imagery corresponds with the content of Batsry's voice over. She recounts an utopian future when, as in a science fiction novel, beings abandon their bodies and transcend material existence. The loss of the real is evoked not only by the almost liquid quality of the imagery but also by the fractured text, both written on the screen and spoken in a voice over which tells of the dissolution of civilisation into a heap of meaningless images.
Andreas Huyssen investigates the disappearance of the modernist utopia in his essay `Memories of utopia'. He remarks that contemporary art and literature no longer claim a utopian future, that the post-modern tendency is, rather, to looking backwards, to the past, to memories. Huyssen examines one explanation for this shift. Citing Jean Baudrillard, he considers the possibility that we have attained a sort of `soft future', that the technologies of simulation have made a virtual utopia possible. We now can live in an cyber world of disembodied pictures, sounds and text. What is lost, writes Huyssen according to this account of a society saturated with images and discourses is not utopia but reality. (Huyssen, Andreas, Twilight Memories: Marking Time in a Culture of Amnesia, Routledge, New York, 1995, p. 90)
Later in his essay Huyssen makes an important critique of the aforementioned theory. He writes that (Baudrillard's) theory of simulation suffers from excessive extrapolation from just one sector of our society, the sector of high-tech cyberspace, to all of our contemporary life-world. To Leave and To Take was started after Batsry had taken a short sojourn in the South of India. I would speculate that the experience of that stay, the experience of the heat and the sound and the smells of a densely populated Indian city would have confirmed Batsry's faith in the real over simulacra. Batsry's work is itself too physically present to abandon reality to empty simulations. To experience the rich imagery, the engaging voice over and the resonant music of Traces of a Presence to Come one does not experience what Huyssen calls the fading of the senses (Huyssen, p. 90) but rather a confirmation of our sensorial potential.
Earlier, I postulated that the arrangement of the grains of the rice in the gloves in To Leave and To Take could stand for the composition of the electronic image. But, before its signification, it is first rice and, for most of us, food. Irit Batsry stressed this a priori interpretation of her work with, first, the physical presence of so much rice in the gallery, and, second, with a simple note stating that the rice used in the installation would later be donated to the Old Brewery Mission, a Montréal shelter for the homeless. With this gesture Batsry extends the significance of her work from the soft realm of utopian time and space to the more pressing concerns of the here and now.