The Desert Is Watching


Trinh T. Minh-ha and Jean-Paul Bourdier










Kyoto Art Biennale 2003

Kyoto Art Center, Japan, October 3 – November 30

Photos projected, bodyart and land art: Jean-Paul Bourdier (B&W 62; 66; color 8).Video projected: Trinh T. Minh-ha. Photos of installation: Kunihiko Katsumata, Kyoto Art Center (B&W 67; color 7), and Jean-Paul Bourdier (B&W 63; 65)

Twenty slides of painted bodyscapes in the Utah desert; one eleven minute digital video of the Utah desert; two DVD projectors and one DVD deck; two slide projectors; stretchable cotton fabric; steel cables and anchors, one mannequin; one blue light; one green light.

In the desert, everything moves. Nothing is ever the same. To watch the light travel across the cliff; or to witness a lake shifting its location minute by minute with the wind’s movement across the infinite surface of the salt, one has to dig oneself into a place and become a desert. Otherwise, in the desert, nothing moves. Sky power dominates. One walks into the silence of death and sees waves of mountains, rocks and sand with no movement.

The “desert” means different things in different cultures. In Japan where there is no real desert, it is said to retain its erotic and romantic connotation. The Gobi desert is said to evoke fantasy about exotic adventure, a fantasy that once functioned aesthetically as an inspiration to promote the Japanese invasion of China (Hiroshi Yoshioka). Widely used as a metaphor for urban inhumanness, the desert has been largely revived today in the Western media as the very place where the enemy vanishes. As enemy land.

Every step taken in the desert is a step taken under watch. One goes there in search of “peace” and finds oneself tuning in with the mutability of the earth. The other who is our enemy is no other than oneself. Here the mind forgets but the body remembers: reptilian bodies, vegetal and mineral bodies standing still, walking, crawling, winding, rolling, slithering on rocks or sinking in the vast expanse of white. There, where there is no place to hide, one is found. The desert? It is what takes birth within, and paints itself on the watcher’s skin.

This installation is the first manifestation of a larger on-going project whose realization will take on different forms in different locations and circumstances. As it is set up here, the spectators will not see any photo or video image as they enter the space. The fabric structure serves as a gradient device to slow down visual access. It is only when the viewers reach the second half of the room (or sooner if they are taller) and when their heads touch the fabric that they encounter, see, and experience images of the desert. Their intervention—either emerging above the horizon of the fabric structure or staying partially caught in it—determines the way they see.

The unstable, mutating video image-sequences, composed of long uninterrupted slow pans all moving in the same direction, offer a panorama of the desert in its seasonal appearances. The sequences are projected in pairs simultaneously on both sides of the wall.

The stable slide images are also projected in pairs as doubles, in shot-reverse shot, next to one another on the wall furthest from the entrance. They are shown in slow dissolves as mirage images that play with the relation between bodyscape and landscape.