«Phlight» Patterns

[My participation in the installation, Phlight, with Simon Tyszko (2008), London, Saatchi Gallery]

The best meal I have eaten in London to date was under a sleek, stainless steel, DC-3 Dakota airplane wing in the middle of a flat in South London.  Simon Tyszko’s «Phlight» installation collapses time and space transporting the past into the present, juxtaposing wartime anatomy within metropolitan architecture, marking the solipsism of the quotidian peace within domestic space and the violence of outside invasive forces.

I came to meet Simon after having written him two years ago asking for permission to use the images from his «Suicide Bomber Barbie» piece (2002) for a book on this subject.  Upon meeting him, I found myself in the middle of a flat where we could stand upright only near the entrance, around the bathtub and in the kitchen.  The rest of Simon Tyszko’s flat was cut through horizontally by an airplane wing rendering impossible the ability to stand erect in 70% of his flat.  I felt as if I was in a frozen frame of a video that I had seen before and conterminously in an episode of a past I had already lived.  I had two feelings when first exposed to «Phlight» and the first goes something like this: I am in the inside of the World Trade Center, minus the terror, the heat, the death.  This strange mixture of a «terrifyingly» large structure interrupting a seemingly peaceful home environment while holding time hostage as this wing is frozen in the middle of the flat—fixed, silent and imposing—forcing one to live the obvious contradictions.  A swift, violent act rendered still, silent and peaceful.

Of course, I have to ask myself if it is «too obvious» to talk about or even dare think of 9/11 in relationship to «Phlight»?  Or is this merely inevitable and a necessary process being conscious in a world where 9/11, though certainly undramatic when considering the thousands who die each day from hunger, thirst and war around the world, is nonetheless this moment for the die-hard Occidental to suddenly feel empathetic towards a “Western kind of suffering”?  Have we reached a point in both visual artistic expression and critical theory where everything in the Western landscape of violence will somehow always, necessarily return to the events of 9/11?   These are questions that Simon and I address during our lunch.

The second emotion that «Phlight» aroused in me was that of my first airborne jump that I undertook when in the U.S. Army in the mid 1980’s.  I parachuted out of a C-130 (like the Dakota, a transport plane) high above Fort Benning, Georgia and the motor of the C-130 drowned out the voices of my fellow soldiers nervous about their first jump while also muffling the shouts of the sergeant who was threatening us with «Kiwi up the ass!» (Kiwi is a boot polish in the United States) if we were not to jump out of the plane voluntarily.  The moment I jumped, I saw the left wing of the plane flash away ever so quickly and all that noise was suddenly no longer — there was this peaceful still and I was falling unable to feel the movement of space around me, unable to perceive the dismemberment of time.  «Phlight» brings up these moments that are both lived and mimetic, recreating newer experiences around and under its vast expanse and through the subject whose experience with this massive corpse of metal renders a completely different feeling at each encounter, in each temporality.

There I had two images flooding my head synchronous to my intake of «Phlight»:  a past experience of a Baudrillardian «real» rendered even realer to me due to media images and the repetitions of the Twin Towers being undone before my eyes and then there was my own memory of a wing rendered silent, still and then suddenly, indiscriminately, absent.  Experience and story, the real within fiction and the bella menzogna of the real:  lived experiences are deconstructed by this massive installation.  «Phlight» forces the spectator to be a participant — there is no standing back as if taking perspective from a Monet  painting, for there is not room into which one can step back. «Phlight» encapsulates the viewer rendering her spectator and participant— «Phlight» consumes the subject in the perpetual acts of seeing and performing, of being swallowed up within the movement/stasis of the wing that paradoxically goes nowhere, yet that is everywhere.

I moved around this wing with complete consciousness of its uncomfortable positioning through the flat:  I hit my head while standing up at one point, forgetting it was there as I attempted to look at it from all angles, wedging my body into the extreme corner of one of the two rooms as the wing remained flush against my chin. I attempted to move around the immense wing again and hit my head another two times while taking pictures of its glossy body. I could not photograph its entirety and often could not photograph it without the mirrored image of myself being reflected in the polished stainless steel body of the wing.

After many attempts to see it «all», I had to conclude I could not see «Phlight» in its entirety and that likely there was no entirety to witness:   even viewed from one room to the next, the other half of «Phlight» was obfuscated by a wall—partially or fully—and from the entrance, the main dividing wall always cuts off a totalizing view.  «Phlight» remains a work that, like the Sufi tale of the blind men and the elephant, each participant can only experience this work in pieces.  The happening can never fully be complete because the “seeing it all” is an irreality, living it “all” is fragmented.  The only holistic reading of «Phlight» can only occur in the shared experience of a conterminous performance and as diachronic narration, such as my writing and Simon and my conversation about this installation over lunch.

«Phlight» can best be understood as narrative performance, the re-creation of the space between life and storytelling–where one must fill in the blanks to recount “what really happened”.  The events as the viewer saw and experienced them, the physical discomforts and the impact of ostranenie (when the viewer is forced to see common objects in “strange” ways) whereby the participant is constantly negotiating this piece both literally and figuratively.  We recognize the wing of an airplane, but cannot contextualize it within the walls of a flat, especially an intact flat, un-destroyed by velocity, impact and explosion.   How to explain this piece to a friend?  How to experience it within the construct of the everyday when it is simply out of the ordinary, and yet both familiar and strange?  We continued to eat our lunch below the wing as Simon narrates his bicycle ride across London that day.