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Going Inside: Intimacy and the Art of Julianne Swartz

Essay by Cassandra Coblentz for How Deep Is Your Exhibition Catalog, 2012

Julianne Swartz wants to let you in. She wants her audience to feel something, something she too has felt, she wants to connect. In her work, she offers up her own human vulnerability to reach her audience in a way that is at once comforting and unnerving: she taps into the private space of intimacy. She does so with a gentle confidence that is seductive and provocative, luring her audience in with a sensuality that comes dangerously close to the realm of the sentimental yet retains a distance that maintains objectivity and enables her to toy with her viewers' comfort levels, ultimately provoking them to question their own relationship to the notion of intimacy.

For Swartz, intimacy is inextricably linked to a concept of the body that is pervasive in her work, but is also decisively abstract. She is acutely aware of the physical presence of her viewer, whom she seeks to engage. The process of deciphering the work in time and space allows each individual to have a unique, personal experience. Swartz's highly constructed moments of sheer poetry feel like happy accidents occurring organically, but are in fact painstakingly and meticulously orchestrated. Her often intricate installations facilitate many intimate moments. She is a master at using scale to manipulate her audience's experience.

For his survey show at New York's Whitney Museum of American Art in 1975, artist Richard Tuttle included 3rd Rope Piece, which consists of a three-inch piece of rope nailed to the wall. Tuttle's notorious object boldly challenged the vogue for extremely large-scale sculpture that dominated New York art circles at the time; it was met with significant skepticism. In her text "A Universe of Small Truths," written on the occasion of Tuttle's next major retrospective exhibition, Madeline Grynsztejn stated:

Tuttle's small sculptures from this period oblige us to scrutinize them more closely, so too do they insist on an intensified apprehension of their, and our, surroundings, without in any way "filling up" much actual space. This is not easily accomplished, and in fact it relies on an impeccable sense of measure and proportion that strikes just the right triangulated balance of the object in relation to one's body and to the room's volume. Using an intuitive approach, Tuttle, as no other artist, has tested the limits of a work's material reduction and located his pieces at the living edge beyond which they would fail or even disappear as artworks.

Tuttle's groundbreaking approach to dealing with scale in relation to the physical presence of an object in space has had a tremendous and enduring impact on artistic practice. The influence of these kinds of gestures is, for example, quite prevalent in Swartz's work.

Swartz's experiments with scale operate on a number of levels: the physical, geographical and visual as well as the temporal and aural. Early on in her career, she began her ongoing exploration of lenses, which Swartz often uses to isolate specific visual occurrences and make her viewers pause and become aware of their own perceptual experience. Following the basic principle of the camera obscura, these works, often referred to as "Camera-Less-Videos," have evolved from small lenses placed in pipes or plumbing materials to larger boxes, always positioned in front of a window or some other vantage point within an exhibition space. This placement carefully engineers a play of scale between the view framed by the window and the representation of the view when perceived through the lens as inverted, repeated and smaller, and therefore somewhat abstracted. The isolation of each view and the shift in scale severs the image from its larger context and encourages the viewer to focus in on the details.

Swartz is adept at directing her audiences' attention. She employs delicate materials to generate a sense of tension, leading viewers to the potential impact of tiny spaces and precise, fleeting moments of recognition. Link/Line from 2001 epitomizes the vulnerability Swartz infuses into her work:

A continuous line of red thread was run 4.5 miles through the city of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. On its route the thread line went through a school, churches, synagogues, an army reserve barracks, places of business and private homes that volunteered to "host" it. Hosts provided a home for the thread while serving as watch-keepers over its safety, tending their designated section of thread for the duration of the exhibition by retying it in the event of breakage.

Link/Line was commissioned as a work of public art in response to a series of anti-Semitic hate crimes that had occurred in Harrisburg. Participation in maintaining this fragile installation enabled strong and significant connections among people. The small- scale gesture had profound reverberations.

In her later magnet sculptures such as Spectrum, 2004, and Blue Corner Reach, 2006, Swartz again used thread to explore connection. However, in this body of work she used the physical tension produced by magnets to introduce a gap. This gap drew attention to the invisible but powerful space between two things and made the crucial point of connection even more emphatic. Here, as in her other works, Swartz capitalized on the properties of her materials, establishing a dynamic that is poignantly evocative as both a sculpture and a metaphor for human relationships. The fragile balance of power between two individual entities in these works reached a pinnacle of optimism and potential in 2010 in Floor to Ceiling

Orchestrating moments that in their minutia and delicacy inversely have maximal impact is also at the core of Swartz's "Hope Studies" series. In Touch Knowledge, 2009, for example, a clock motor in cement blocks causes a tiny LED light bulb bearing a sliver of willowy, wobbling, electrically charged wire to orbit around a thicker, spiral wire. Evocative of a mildly menacing barbed wire, this coiled wire also carries an electrical current and thus offers the possibility of a charged connection between the wires. With time, as the motor propels the wire and bulb with gentle pulsations, it occasionally completes the circuit and the tiny bulb flares briefly. The Sisyphean futility of these charged elements connecting only briefly and inconsistently is thought-provoking: What does it mean to know something or someone? What kind of knowledge occurs through physical contact?

Swartz does not shy away from exploring bodily intimacy through suggestions of touch, sensuality, flesh and fluids. In her "Close" series, Swartz tackles these issues via the mechanism of the camera. The images in this series offer a potentially neutral, objective approach to representing the body in a contemporary context. The viewer becomes an innocent voyeur of these private moments. In each photograph, a water droplet-dangling from Swartz's own fingertip and a form intentionally evocative of body parts associated with sexuality, such as a female breast, a cervix or a penis-functions as a lens, presenting an image upside down and somewhat obscured as in the "Camera-Less-Video" works. For example, Close (Breast), 2010, records a tender interaction between Swartz's husband and baby daughter, its layered and refracted imagery reflected within the magnified droplet. In addition to the bodily intimacy suggested by the titles of these works and the viscous fleshiness of the imagery, the fingertip itself implies touch.

Touch was a core concept explored by the French feminist theorist Luce Irigaray. Her bold and explicit theories about power relations, gender and sexuality urged men and women to reconsider their subjectivity as equal in nature and culture. Irigaray argued for the need to move beyond binary models of opposition and division perpetuated by a long history of a male-dominated conception of subjectivity. Swartz's practice is rooted in a strong but subtle connection to these historical feminist inquiries and a belief in the fundamentally politicized conceptions of gender and sexuality in Western society. In "When our Lips Speak Together," Irigaray outlined an intimacy like the one Swartz portrays, that knows no clear separation or opposition:

No surface holds: no figures, lines, and points; no ground subsists. But there is no abyss. For us, depth does not mean a chasm. Where the earth has no solid crust, there can be no precipice. Our depth is the density of our body, in touch "all" over. There is no above/below, back/front, right side/wrong side, top/bottom in isolation, separate, out of touch. Our "all" intermingles. Without breaks or gaps….

Swartz captured all of this in the very small scale - in both time and space - of a drop of water on the brink of falling. The implied fluidity ultimately dissolves any boundary between the physical closeness of the finger to the camera's lens. As one image gets folded into another, so too does the metaphoric closeness of both the photographer and her subjects. Her subtle, poetic message emphasizes above all the fragility of intimacy. According to Swartz, "the drop holds a moment in time that is fleeting and so temporal and gone as soon as the drop falls, so these pieces are also meant to embody that fragility and fleetingness-of a childhood, of connection, of a life."

Much of Swartz's work revolves around aspects of the body-human sounds, textures, sensations. Although manifest physically only in wires and speakers, this body remains somehow sensuous and visceral. By translating the cold materiality of technology into the corporeal, Swartz denies the mind/body split. She presents the body as an idea, but in ways that her viewers relate to psychologically and emotionally. Its physicality is often implied, not literally presented. She offers her audience bodily sensations, but the body itself remains elusive and abstract.

Sound first became a focus for Swartz with her 2003 installation How Deep Is Your at PS1 in Queens, New York. Viewers could put their head inside a large funnel and hear two songs interwoven: the Bee Gees' "How Deep Is Your Love" and "Love" by John Lennon. By following a meandering light blue pipe throughout the museum, they could listen to the sound as it traveled from its source in the building's defunct boiler room, through stairwells and hallways to the second-floor gallery. Treating the building as a kind of body, Swartz called attention to its rusty skeletal structure and rickety innards, finding parallels between it and the artificial network of plastic piping and the awkward orifice of the funnel that provided initial access to the overall experience of the piece. This very nonhuman bodily reference is set in opposition to the sentimental emotional memories conjured by the two pop songs. Swartz came of age in the 1970s during the heyday of these songs; in using them she very consciously taps into the collective memories they trigger. Although she knows that today they might be considered saccharine and even campy, at a certain point in her life the feelings the songs elicited were not ironic, but reflected a pure, innocent, honest notion of love that remains important to her.

While How Deep Is Your offered an aural experience moving through pipes, tubes and the innards of its site, Sound of Light, 2008, took a different approach to urging an audience to move through space and experience sound. For this installation, Swartz created receivers that picked up radio waves from designated locations throughout the permanent collection galleries of The Jewish Museum in New York. Conjuring imagery of cocoons, fetuses and the inner ear, slightly transparent glowing receivers were designed so that people had to cradle them to their ears to listen. The receivers' substantial weight and somewhat disturbing biomorphic form that recalls objects made by Mathew Barney command attention. Writer and curator Neville Wakefield's description of Barney's 1993 "Drawing Restraint" series, could almost be applied to Swartz's receivers: "Spilled from the crucible of action, the molten matter of a pre-genital universe, Barney sculpts the gravitational pull of a body never our own - where the language of the sculptural dimension falters on the edge of the possible, the edge of hubris."

For Sound of Light, Swartz strategically placed brightly lit labels highlighting themes and concepts she intuited as relative to corresponding displays that read: "a miracle," "dust," "sound of beginning and ending," "sound of patience," "shadow," "the tenderness," "the sound of radiance, the sound of obscurity." The words or phrases on the labels conjured qualities of light and dark and were carefully selected because of their ambiguous relationship to any one specific sound or object. As people moved through the space holding the receivers, they encountered areas of static, eventually arriving at designated locations, marked by the labels, where artful compositions came into aural focus. Each composition comprised different combinations of sounds both immediately familiar, such as the sound of falling water, and others that evoke emotion but are difficult to identify. The quality of recording is heightened and visceral, resonant in an overtly bodily way as if heard from within, like the sound of breathing, swallowing or humming.

The human voice is a primary vehicle for Swartz: breath and humming play important roles in much of her art. A kind of private song for oneself, humming is often heard only from within one's own body. Breath is not only a reminder of the commonalities the viewer shares with the person creating the sounds being heard, but it is also a reference to the practice of meditation. It bears noting that Swartz's conception of the body is rooted in her interest in Eastern metaphysics through yoga and meditation. For centuries, many spiritual and mystic traditions have focused on the sounds of breath and the human voice from within the body as having the power to inspire consciousness in meditation. According to the renowned Sufi mystic and teacher Hazrat Inayat Khan, "There is no greater and more living resonator of sound than the human body. Sound has an effect on each atom of the human body, for each atom resounds."

This sense of hearing from inside the body is present in most of Swartz's sound works. When she transposes her recordings into the context of public display, the voices engender a powerful emotional response. These aural effects that she often incorporates in her work-singing, murmurs, whispers-are always disembodied and moving, difficult to locate spatially.

The isolated, moving voice is experienced in a multitude of contexts, but always separated from its original speaker. For her large-scale installation Terrain, 2008, at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, Swartz denied specificity and the possibility of identifying one unique voice in favor of a cohesive sound that enveloped viewers. Recordings of volunteers offering affection to a loved one-gentle hums, murmurs and whispered affirmations-wafted down on audiences from 208 speakers suspended in a delicate web of colorful wires in the museum's three thousand-square-foot rotunda. The space breathed with a disembodied, formless human sound.

Art historian and theorist Rosalind Krauss' analysis of Surrealist artist Georges Bataille's notion of the formless, or informe, offers important insight here:

It is too easy to think of informe as the opposite of form. To think of form versus matter. Because this "versus" always performs the duties of form, of creating binaries, of separating the world into neat pairs of oppositions by means, as Bataille liked to say, of "mathematical frock coats." Form versus matter. Male versus female. Life versus death. Inside versus outside. Vertical versus horizontal. Etc. Chaos as the opposite of form is chaos that could always be formed by the form that is always already there in wait for chaos.

This model of a dynamic, multifaceted, "chaotic" experience is right at home in Swartz's work, particularly in her work with sound. Swartz experimented with this format of a nebulous network of voices in Body, and Loop, 2010, as well. Both pieces comprise networks of speakers suspended from wires and projecting gentle voices speaking in hushed tones. The visitor begins by trying to follow one specific thread, but over time surrenders to the ambient cacophony, to the atmosphere rather than a message. This plurality gives rise to something universal. Embedded within the immersive chaos, single phrases and affective tone reveal the sincere tenderness of the work's intent.

The boundaries between public and private space are another key area of inquiry for Swartz. She moves convincingly between the conceptual presentation of the artwork in a public situation (gallery, museum, public space, etc.) and the intimacy of personal communication. Her installations Affirmation, 2006, at the Tate Liverpool and a public art commission for the High Line park in New York, Digital Empathy, 2011, defy traditional definitions of public and private. Affirmation was sited throughout the Tate Liverpool-in the museum shop, galleries, stairwells and restrooms. At each site, audiences had to actively discover the source of a recording of seventy-two volunteers offering them words of encouragement. Swartz carefully selected locations in which people behave and interact differently. Often, the viewer had to get as close as possible to the source in order to hear the voices. This physical requirement, coupled with hearing a disembodied voice emerging from, for example, the sink in the restroom, and saying "people like you make this world a pleasure to live in," or "I really want to know what you have to say, I really care about you," challenged expectations of how to behave in the museum environment and upset the social norms for public and private spaces. The dialogue varied in tone from earnest to over-the-top facetious. Visitors moved differently, paid attention to parts of the building usually ignored and interacted with strangers-all in an effort to experience the art. Swartz explains that, "an intention of the piece was to hear another's voice, a stranger's voice, as an integrated voice in one's own head, collapsing the distance between self and other. This made the experience of navigating the museum theatrical because visitors had to deal with the discomfort of private messages in public, hearing these addresses among other museum visitors."

Moving the art experience to the restroom had the particularly unsettling effect of engaging viewers in a space that typically serves to accommodate private bodily functions almost always performed in solitude. Antecedents exist for Swartz's crossing the line between private and public. Writing about Vito Acconci's groundbreaking "body art" of the early 1970s, Melanie Mariño stated: "the body in this work has no boundaries, releasing a certain exchangeability between inside and outside, mapping the permeability of self and other onto privacy and public-ness." Acconci's work from this period set an important precedent for artists grappling with ideas of intimacy and privacy in public space. Using the body as an artistic tool for transgressing the rigidly defined social spaces of public and private plays out in Swartz's work.

Swartz's Digital Empathy likewise challenged these social taboos and confronted bodily issues in a very coded kind of public space. Computer- generated sound recordings established an objective and detached tone of scientific authority that enabled a very direct and matter-of-fact treatment of bodily things. Warnings about personal hygiene and the benefits of washing hands emerging from the sink felt friendly and helpful, but also subtly invasive. Swartz's recordings deliberately recall, even mimic, public service announcements and intentionally toy with the line between appropriateness and expectation. This subversion of such invasions of personal privacy is intended as a critique of these kinds of aural experiences that permeate our sense of privacy in contemporary society. By drawing attention to their own body, through the act of washing their hands, Swartz inspired her audience to consider the institutional and commercial voice that occupies any public space, even the bathroom.

Her work with the High Line's drinking fountains continued this theme. When visitors pressed the button and bent to drink at one fountain, they heard a computer-generated voice speak about the health benefits of drinking water and reducing social anxiety; at another fountain a query emerged: "Did you know that kissing helps to prevent tooth decay? The extra saliva produced helps to keep the mouth clean." With this, Swartz not only offered a reminder about the body parts engaged in drinking, but she also made a direct connection to the intimate expression of love that this body part performs. Thus, the practical drinking fountain became a vehicle for inspiring thoughts and emotions associated with kissing, perhaps even triggering a specific memory.

Both installations called attention to the fact of our bodies existing in communal environments, sharing such devices as toilets and drinking fountains. Swartz addressed the anxiety associated with the spread of germs and confronted the unease we experience when we come into contact with the bodies of strangers. She suggested that we all might have more in common than we wish to acknowledge- however comfortable or uncomfortable this might be.

Physical coexistence calls into consideration the way we inhabit space and how, particularly in intimate relationships, our bodies are inextricably linked in a dynamic of continual negotiation and growth. In her most overtly autobiographical work to date, Surrogate (JS), Surrogate (KRL), Surrogate (ARL), 2012, Swartz tackled these fundamental human concerns. This piece consists of three entities representing Swartz, her husband and their young daughter. Precariously stacked cement block forms signify each individual's body height and depth, at the time; they are arranged together in a casual familial grouping. The quiet ticking of many tiny clocks embedded in each form signifies the passage of time, suggesting the potential for individuals to fall into and out of synchronicity and the universal fact of mortality and the finite human body. Critical theorist Henri Lefebvre famously wrote about this kind of dynamic body in space:

There is an immediate relationship between the body and its space, between the body's deployment in space and its occupation of space. Before producing effects in the material realm (tools and objects), before producing itself by drawing nourishment from that realm, and before reproducing itself by generating other bodies, each living body is space and has space: it produces itself in space and it also produces space.

When applied to Surrogate, Lefebvre's observations underscore Swartz's ability to combine strong theoretical concerns with personal and tangible poignancy by imbuing sculptural materials with life in all of its complexities.

Taken as a whole, Swartz's works gracefully complement and build upon one another in a logical and natural way. She fluidly shifts between the visual and aural, the spatial and the temporal, while retaining cohesive conceptual threads. Each way of working is another form of expression. Perhaps the most stunning aspect of Swartz's work is its openness, which permits the coexistence of an easy mix of diverse influences - eclectic art-historical references, stringent postmodern theories and esoteric concepts of Eastern mysticism. Running through them all is her multifaceted, dynamic sense of intimacy, which transcends dichotomies of lover and friend, male and female, parent and child, to access common points of sensuality and sensitivity. Whether physically moving within walls or infrastructures of buildings, or permeating viewers' personal inner worlds with sound, Swartz's work inspires universal feelings of hope and love and draws attention to the precariousness of what it means to be human.