reservoir spark .jpg

Essay on the installation Reservoir  by Marina Benjamin 1994

Reservoir is a dynamic, interactive, audiovisual system combining fire, water and electricity to dramatic effect. Intimately concerned with perception, both in its experimental and its cognitive senses, it asks, semi-rhetorically, "do you see?" ... then, "do you understand?". The viewer must actively evaluate what is perceived, and figure out whether it belongs to the realm of illusion or reality. Only when the viewer is present does Reservoir become whole. This is a binary installation, consisting of two opposite yet complementary parts. In a white space, a Wimshurst machine enthroned in a perspex case faces a projection of a waterfall whose deep roar fills the air. The Wimshurst's majestic stillness is broken only when the beam-breaking viewer crosses an invisible threshold. Then it comes to life, with a smart industrial snap, producing electric sparks, that are instantly magnified and projected briefly intercutting in the place of the waterfall projection.

In the connecting black space a ceiling-mounted mechanism releases a trio of water droplets one at a time onto a metal tray on the floor. The amplified sound of their impact echoes through the space, like a regular beat marking passing time. When the beam-breaking viewer triggers a strobe, the light transforms the water drops into iridescent jewels that appear by turn to be suspended in space and to travel upwards in defiance of gravity. Such play with water and light and sound recalls Bill Viola's He Weeps for You (1976). To one side of the space is another trio - of 3" LCD monitors, showing the familiar trace of an ECG, the human equivalent of the disembodied spark, and every so often the transient, flickering image of a gender reassignment operation wipes over the three screens.

Understanding Judith Goddard's inspiration involves reflecting on the significance of the electric spark in the manner of Bachelard, whose Psychoanalysis of Fire made room for feeling to open up avenues of natural inquiry that lie beyond the reach of science. Feeling your way through Reservoir evokes multiple resonances centring on the spark that brings the meaning of creativity, nature, science, and life itself into question. When we gaze at the spark in wonder, and hope for enlightenment, we resemble the crowds who thronged to see the electrical displays given by itinerant Newtonian lecturers in the 18th century. These men of science, used forerunners of the Wimshurst machine to conjure up sparks believing the generation of electricity to be proof of God's activity in the world. Like Prometheus, and like Mary Shelley's Dr Frankenstein, they risked divine vengeance in daring to usurp The Creator's sole right to animate the world with the spark of life. Reservoir points to the hubris of science in aligning itself with God in an attempt to subjugate nature. In the 18th century science satisfied itself with the spark of life, today, as the ECG suggests, it has progressed to the pulse of life, extending its control to the very heart of human identity - gender.

At the same time Reservoir celebrates the magic of physics, and the aesthetic possibilities of constrained. The Wimshurst machine in action, is quite simply beautiful; the glistening droplets suspended in mid-air are exquisitely painful; the squiggle and bleep of the ECG are refined abstraction of the human form. It is as if Goddard is suggesting that pleasure and beauty might be gained by transgressing the laws of nature, turning them on their head to produce illusions that are supranatural rather than supernatural. In this sense Reservoir has much in common with Huysman's decadent novel Against Nature.

Ultimately, the installation invites the viewer to muse on the moment of creation, divine, human, scientific, and natural. In reality, this moment is always a fleeting flash of brilliance, but in the world of illusions that make up Reservoir, it is drawn out into eternity.

Or so we perceive.

Marina Benjamin