Panya Clark Espinal

Retrospective Hallucinations

This essay by Barbara Fischer appeared in Panya Clark: Like ancient pots spilled from a drowned ship, tube sponges bulge eerily …, a catalogue published by The Southern Alberta Art Gallery.

From her earliest work on, Panya Clark’s modus operandi involved working with already given images. In this, her work shares the appropriationist procedures of a generation of artists who emerged at the end of the 1970s1, namely not to invent but to look at already existing images. Only, rather than simply re-presenting a given image — as most appropriationists do — Clark attempts the impossible: a studious, ravishingly meticulous re-materialization of what is given in a picture.

For Panya Clark, images thus work as a kind of trigger — as though their silent, seductive stillness had something hidden, something that they put into play by showing yet hiding, both revealing and concealing at once. It is as though images held a promise, like a wrapped present that asked to be opened, or a locked Pandora’s box that could not be resisted.

But, more than merely being concerned with pictures, in Panya Clark’s work the lure of the image is mapped onto that of a collection, whether in the form of a magazine, the library, archive, gallery or museum. Just as the image seems to “contain” something more than it itself is — least of all a three-dimensional, physical or experiential reality — in Clark’s work the collection appears to be similar in structure: it promises us to be able to re-visit history, to re-experience a moment, to unfold the truth that the past withholds from the present. Related to museum practices which involve constructing careful settings for and even reconstructing rare or vanished objects, Panya Clark’s work enacts the passage to knowledge that reconstructions are meant to facilitate (i.e. in the museum). Her work thus touches on a more general, rather than merely personal desire, namely to retrieve into immediate sensual proximity and fullness that which is dematerialized, immaterialized or de-realized by reproduction, representation, and history.


Indeed, Research & Discovery, Clark’s first major installation, presented itself seductively as a collection in a museum. It even underlined this presentation with references to the history of collecting. Including carefully staged objects on pedestals, and a small work-type desk, the installation, in fact, resembled the ancient predecessor of the contemporary museum: the cabinet of curiosities in which a microcosm of exotic things would periodically bear the scrutiny of a studious professor who hoped to unlock the secrets of the universe. But, more than a self-reflexive device that tells us where we are, the installation points us to a more recent form of the museum: one with much vaster abilities to master (or reproduce) the real — the magazine. A shelf installed around the perimeter of the room carries back issues (from Clark’s grandfather’s collection) of National Geographic, and it is adorned by a frieze directly copied from the well-known border of the cover of the same magazine: both work to literally enframe the room and thereby signal that “here,” where indeed we are, is an image-world (the magazine) which has not only taken the form of, but also we suppose, supplanted the traditional museum. The magazine, with its collections of images, is a museum that can be housed in everyone’s household. Clark’s installation clearly presents a certain history in an allegorical mode. Each form is a reproduction of the former in somewhat altered form: the magazine of the museum, the museum of the cabinet of curiosities. In itself this is not an unfamiliar idea. It relates of course to Andre Malraux’s notion of “the museum without walls” which was ushered in by photography. But, Research & Discovery also demonstrates how in the age of image-reproductions the ground has shifted for the artist’s work. The desk with its working utensils and other materials indicating “work-in-progress” points the direction: this is a workshop studio where the work of the contemporary artist is done. In this museum, reproductions disclose the whole world as “found sculpture,” all objects being potentially collected via “colour-plates” and thus added into an infinite archive. And, if the infinite variety of ready-made sculpture in images suggests a certain obsolescence of making new objects then Research & Discovery answers that the work of the artist is on the subject of reproduction — a new reason for sculpture. Art practice, from here on, no longer proceeds from the real (as in drawing from nature), but literally and figuratively via a scrutiny of pictures, and that scrutiny is a part of the reason for new work.

If Clark’s work is a description of the desire to know by capture (under the looking-glass in the cabinet, in the vaults and vitrines of the museum, through the lens of the camera), it is also a description of perhaps unexpected effects. The objects that are featured here, are “reconstructions” as we might find them in the real museum (or in the form of an entire site);2 but, unlike reconstructions resembling an obscure and vanished past, Clark’s objects are perfect recreations shown right next to their source in the pages of opened National Geographic magazines:3 pictures of a child’s toy boat, a pair of ravishing earrings worn by an African woman, a small suitcase filled with exotic birds packed tightly and ready for export. Placed on top of a pedestal for a heightened sense of auratic presence, each object has materialized as if by a magician’s act. Rather than restoring the past to the present, however, the fastidious, virtually impossible exactitude of replication, complete with traces of use and wear and tear, gives the object an unreal, beyond the real quality. Regenerated from the image as though from DNA, and ultimately detached from all reality of use, purpose or history, each is a spectacle, as marvellous as a fake diamond, as irresistible as red sugar syrup to a hummingbird, a trap for the gaze like the golden treasures of King Tut.

No matter how long we are compelled to gaze into the depths of the image, what Panya Clark offers us in the form of objects exposes what is left of depth. Each stage of attempting to represent (capture, hold, or fasten) the real [via the cabinet of curiosities, the museum, the magazine, and representation itself (art as re-presentation)] adds further to a circuit where the hope of retrieving the real only leads to its production or replacement.4 The image has become the recipe by which we cook up the real — as at Disneyland, or in the replica “caves” of Lascaux (the original being forbidden to visitors), or, right back at home, at the Royal Ontario Museum, where Panya Clark would in fact come to work.5


“Doesn’t every science live on this paradoxical slope to which it is doomed by the evanescence of its object in the very process of its apprehension, and by the pitiless reversal this dead object exerts on it? Like Orpheus, it always turns around too soon, and its object, like Eurydice, falls back into Hades.”6

If one felt one was watching something falling — back into the well, into the depths, into the irretrievable past — a smaller, more specifically polemical piece entitled The Collectors (Rockefeller)7, at first seems to throw us a rope, a referent, a thing to renew our grasp of the real — by referring to the collector as the final meaning of the collection. As in Research & Discovery Clark superimposes several levels (now literally represented by drawn images, photographs, posters and other reproductions), each standing for the way in which museum practices structure experience. Moreover, as Clark’s work makes evident, the museum’s operations refer us back, not to the original meaning of tribal objects, but to the exoticist passions of an individual, in this case Rockefeller Jr.: we are presented with his image, his studies, his words, his collecting activities and finally the dedication of a wing, with the presentation of his collection in an exhibition. In other words, the collection, and the final meaning of the tribal object, is anchored for the visitor of the museum — no longer to its original use in a particular culture — but in the subjective individuality of the collector.

But even here this meaning dissipates when museum objects re-appear in the promotion and marketing of the collection via reproductions and trinkets that are sold by the museum, as Clark’s piece shows. In fact, Panya Clark has collected some of the items that advertise the Rockefeller collection and fabricated other items which mimic those typically available in the museum shop — a videotape, books, maps, copies of, or designs derivative of tribal artifacts. In her work, they are presented as the museum visitor’s souvenirs in a suitcase, reminiscent of Marcel Duchamp’s Boite-en-Valise, a travelling salesman’s suitcase, which displays a miniature retrospective collection of his work. No longer that of the collector, the original trophies of the white hunter, the original has disappeared in a larger circuit of adornments: it has become a pure sign in the cycle of consumption and reproduction that the consumer comes to share — the object from Rockefeller’s collection like the jeans by Calvin Klein, the designer earrings signed by Paloma Picasso, or the “Art” of Oldsmobile — in the purchase of personal identity and “authenticity” in the process of individuation.


If a work like Research & Discovery leads up to (or, over the edge and into) the world of the cool, seductive simulacrum (even if the re-make is “hand-made”), a much later work marks another attempt, but through an entirely different route, to pierce through the simulacrum. Designed to outwit the effect of distance and evanescence (as it prevails in Research & Discovery) Re Appearances is perhaps also Panya Clark’s most personal project to date. It relates not only to her family history, but perhaps quite specifically to her own practice as an artist, by way of paintings by her grandmother, Russian-born Canadian artist Paraskeva Clark. Based on a piece of correspondence between Paraskeva Clark and the curator of the National Gallery of Canada in 1945, which is in fact mounted at the entrance to the installation, Panya Clark’s work quickly establishes the personal nature of the relation. Gathering from the letter, it appears that the curator of the National Gallery had suggested to Paraskeva Clark to remove an actual, printed programme from Self-Portrait with Concert Programme that the Gallery had recently purchased, and to paint it in instead. A key not simply to this particular work, but perhaps to the desire manifest in all of Panya Clark’s work, Paraskeva Clark’s response to Mr. McCurry reads:

“I just would like to add re: my Self Portrait with Concert Programme – that I would be glad to paint the Programme. At the time I couldn’t dream it might be bought by someone — and a real programme seemed to have more power as a message I wanted to send through my painting.”

The hope that, through the inserted real programme, painting be understood as a narration of experience and as commemoration of an actual, personal event, is re-enacted in Panya Clark’s installation — with extraordinary precision. Based on what she could still find of her grandmother’s possessions, Panya Clark has borrowed a number of pertinent paintings and has retrieved a variety of the actual objects that appear in them — things that themselves are both ordinary, functional objects and memento mori, including a living-room table, which shows up in various pictures as ground of a still life; an arm chair for the sitters of portraits; a fine, black dress and floral wreath as worn by a woman in her portrait; a candle holder that re-appears in a painting of a Christmas tree; a small flag and other odd trinkets — all things that could be traced somehow, recouped, and rescued from the unceasing discontinuity that is time.

Clearly, the “re-collected” objects in Re Appearances again broach common practice and tradition: that of the museum to reconstitute the identity of a period, of a School, of an artist, whether through the “Period Room,” or special chartered bus and cocktail tours to Van Gogh’s asylum in Aries, or the filming of Picasso’s hand as he is painting. But, in Panya Clark’s installation, retrieved objects appear to be placed in a desire not merely for the sense of touch, three dimensions, physicality, actual experience, and the power of real, but for the very substance of at once, Panya Clark’s sense of connectedness to her grandmother, and her grandmother’s identity as an artist, her subjectivity, sense of self and source of inspiration. As Baudrillard once put it,

“… like the relic whose function it secularises, [the bygone object] reorganizes the world into a form of constellation, as opposed to the extensive functional organisation, endeavouring to preserve against it the profound and undoubtedly essential unreality of one’s innermost being…. Like islands or legends, these objects transport man from the here and now back to his infancy, and even earlier still — to a time before birth where ambience stood as a direct metaphor for pure subjectivity, and where this ambience was nothing but a perfect discourse of being with itself.”8

The result of the installation, however, takes unexpected turns. In place of depth and ambience, the re-constructed shell of Paraskeva Clark’s living room (complete with an alcove, windows, trim and even matched wall colour) lacks all traces of being lived in. In their stead the room offers the curious delight and cool sterility of trompe l’oeil between our look at paintings and the looks represented in painting. A painting is hung on a wall whose colour has been copied from it, so that the painting seems transparent. Even the shadows depicted in the painting are in the right place to be on the real wall. This illusion comes and goes: it is switched off as soon as one looks at the painting as a painting hanging in the room, concealing a wall, like in a museum. Other aspects are equally playful: an actual candle holder on a table “re-appears” in a painting that is now placed behind it but in front of the wall that is painted behind the candle holder, thus making the painting an insertion of Paraskeva Clark’s look into the stark reality of an all too empty, hospital-like room. And in another, the painting of a still-life on a tablecloth lies flat directly on top of a table with the actual tablecloth, so that it looks as though the frame of the picture frames a table cloth upon which has been painted objects in an oblique perspective. These effects — where re-appearance takes place as the play of identity between various levels of pictured, reconstructed, and recollected objects — makes of the room a laboratory in which specimens become neutral facts in experiments remote from living, and delivered from our identifications. Referring to depictions, the retrieved objects are stripped of mystery, just as the mystery of depth vanishes from Paraskeva Clark’s paintings: the objects reduce to literalness the content of the paintings and the paintings empty the ambience of the object through a fixing of its destination. The experience that the paintings seemed to promise has given way, in this room, to the lack-lustre intimacy of objects under the looking glass. The absence that induced the mystery has disappeared, and all that’s left is the dissected corpse of the image.


Re Appearances, more than any other work before it, had set up expectations for us to be able to relive the painter’s real-life experience — which it does not fulfill. Yet, other works by Panya Clark, some not so recent and others more so, circumvent the demand or plea for “authenticity,” for a return of the real from the picture. In these other works, the problem of evanescence evaporates and is replaced by a pure play of replacement — which also represents a move away from the belief in the full presence of the present. This takes place even though the working method remains intricately related to that of Research & Discovery. In Decalog, for instance, which was commissioned by YYZ (an artist-run centre in Toronto) in celebration of its 10th anniversary, Panya Clark undertook to “recreate” the gallery’s history. But, perhaps on account of the impossibility of doing justice to ten years of practice (exhibitions, performances, lectures, etc.) as glimpsed in the archival files and from photographs, Clark limited her project in advance. Abandoning the purpose of complete “re-presentation,” she chose a more specifically subjective approach by selecting and remaking works of art on the basis of her interests in the facts of processes of reproduction: the reproduction of a history in the form of museum displays; the reproductions of art works in photographs and other archival materials; and processes of reproduction as already enacted in particular works of art.

Including several museum-type displays with archival history (collections of invitations, catalogues, postcards, and photographs) presented in various proper display cases, Clark had also re-created some particular works, and models of some installations. Most interesting, among the latter, was perhaps the recreation of an exhibition by Toronto artist Brian Groombridge, which itself consisted of a recreation. The artist had re-made a section of a tiled wall from the Toronto Queen Street subway station — complete with proper yellow tiles, decorative black band, and the name Queen stencilled in. Rather than being designed to evoke an authentic “Queen Street Subway Station” experience, however, Groombridge had partitioned and leaned a section of his reconstructed wall at an angle against the walls of the gallery. This not only broke up the sense of completeness of a reproduced environment, it also affirmed the quality of reproducibility of the wall — this, without losing the power of the name “Queen” to invoke a sense of place. Panya Clark’s recreation of Groombndge’s work, in turn, acted on his “reproduction” by introducing the “reproducibility” of the work of art via a model — a form which is set up for further reproduction and to assist an imaginary projection to become real.

At the time of the reception of Decalog, however, the extended play on reproduction had gone unnoticed. Placing faith in the possibility of an authentic retrieval, and the rescue of the originality of the art in Clark’s reproduction, a particular “flattening” that occurred in the process was seen by one critic as “a necessary evil” when desiring the “original” work to re-exist, or to exist at all. Moreover, according to the same writer, in one of Clark’s recreations the flattening process had gone too far, such as when Clark’s recreation of Stan Denniston’s Reminders appeared to have “mechanized” his photographic work.9 Clark had sliced the originally paired pictures which dealt with memory into several strips, and then mounted them onto rotating angular tubes which could be manipulated by a hand crank, thus enabling the viewer to rotate the contraption from one photograph to the other. If other recreations were seen to be more successful in “the salvaging of the past art into a living context” and Clark’s “reconstitution […] an act of appreciation,” this particular remake was criticized for its inability to re-invoke, and to salvage, “the private atmosphere of the art.”10

Salvage, reconstitution, appreciation — these are not only the terms which found the museum, its claim to the authentic status of its property, and the promise of “authentic experience” — they are also the kinds of claims that Clark’s work researches and investigates, and the kinds of claims that in Clark’s work lead to disillusionment (which is not necessarily negative, but perhaps a liberation). In Decalog, however, what then passed unnoticed, and what distinguishes this work from the others, is that reproductions (such as those found in the archive) are no longer passionately pursued for an original, living reality, but that the reproduction follows subsequent to what is already in reproduction. There is no longer a mourning of lost origins since the origin is constituted by work that has already internalized the condition of “reproduction,” including mechanization. Thus, Panya Clark’s interpretation of Stan Denniston’s work extrapolates from and thereby perhaps even re-casts as nostalgic his photographic, personal memory Reminders in the more contemporary form of memory experience: messages on electronically controlled, mechanically rotating advertising boards to be remembered by the consumer driving along interurban expressways.


Like Ancient Pots …, Clark’s most recent work, is much closer to, but in some respects more radical than Decalog. If in the latter, reproduction follows reproduction, which still allows for a sense of historical process in between (one artist interpreting the work of another), in Like Ancient Pots … even the suggestion of temporal interval is abandoned. The work looks at the process of substitution by which we generally describe experience and confer meaning. But, instead of attempting to re-constitute the object of an original experience, Panya Clark finally locates its permanent absence and impossible presence in the play of image and language in a space that approximates a “virtual reality” — without there being a way out.

The primary component, as in her first work Research & Discovery, is an image from National Geographic. But, this time, Clark has also taken a sentence that describes what the picture pictures, and thus puts before us two different “representations” of one and the same object. The sentence — Like ancient pots spilled from a drowned ship, tube sponges bulge eerily … — constructs a metaphor whereby tube sponges are seen as ancient pots. The installation realizes this construction in a sculptural materialization of both components which make up the metaphor in language: tube sponges, on the one hand, and ancient pots, on the other. In fact, Clark represents the metaphor twice over. One encounters the first in the form of an enlarged photograph of tube sponges (as it appeared in National Geographic magazine) that is presented across the room from a row of ancient-looking pots, as one might imagine to find them in a Greek Antiquities shop — though Clark’s are made of plaster. While the sentence in National Geographic proposes a “likeness” between both, in this first pairing, the two elements are clearly irreconcilable (except for the fact that they both share the status of a reproduction: the photo as picture, the pots as plaster casts). The second realization of the metaphor, however, consists of a darkened room, which is illuminated by a rotating light producing a rippling, underwater effect. Clark, here, has indeed reconstructed an “ambience” quite unlike in previous works: we find ourselves as though submerged in the deep sea, looking at a pile of strange tube sponges (fabricated from a mix of sawdust, wiremesh, glue, paint and flocking) on one side, and through the portholes of a sunken ship upon a heap of ancient-looking pots, on the other.

Thus, if in Research & Discovery we were “in a magazine,” so to speak, in Like Ancient Pots … we are literally and figuratively “submerged” between realities produced by language and images. Rather than producing stereoscopic vision, however, the irreconcileable difference between one and the other – each of which is played to its limits — can only produce an imaginary reconciliation, a kind of hallucination of the real. In the apparently irreconcileable difference between the two components of the metaphor — the tube sponges, here reproduced from the National Geographic photograph, are unlike, not at all “like” the ancient pots we can glimpse through the portholes of the fake ship — Panya Clark’s work leaves us suspended between image and language to hallucinate reality without touching ground. It is ground that finally appears as absence, in its perfect absence, in Panya Clark’s stellar configurations.

Barbara Fischer

  • 1 Douglas Crimp’s exhibition entitled Pictures, in New York, was perhaps the first to postulate a movement, which then included Richard Prince, Sherry Levine, Robert Longo, Cindy Sherman, and Troy Brauntuch, among others.
  • 2 One could think, for instance, of such site reconstructions as the Jesuit mission, Ste-Marie-among-the-Hurons, at Midland, Ontario.
  • 3 The room-sized installation was first presented in a group exhibition in 1988, at Gallery 76, at the Ontario College of Art. Coincidentally, National Geographic magazine celebrated its 100th anniversary in that same year. It was founded in 1888, and continued for a long time under the presidency of Gardiner Green Hubbard, “friend and adviser to presidents, statesmen, and scientists,” and financier and promoter of his son-in-law Alexander Graham Bell.
  • 4 Baudrillard defines the four successive phases of the image as follows:
        — it is the reflection of a basic reality
        — it masks and perverts a basic reality
        — it masks the absence of a basic reality
        — it bears no relation to any reality whatever: it is its own pure simulacrum.
    In this last stage, as Baudrillard writes, “there is no longer any God to recognize his own, nor any last judgment to separate true from false, the real from its artificial resurrection, since everything is already dead and risen in advance.” Jean Baudrillard, The Precession of Simulacra, re-print ed in Art After Modernism, ed. by Brian Wallis, The New Museum of Contemporary Art, N.Y., 1984, p. 257.
  • 5 After completing Research & Discovery Panya Clark worked for the Royal Ontario Museum in that very capacity of reconstructing objects and/or settings for such objects.
  • 6 Ibid., p. 257.
  • 7 This work was shown in the exhibition Salvage Paradigm, curated by Janice Gurney, in 1990, and presented at Wynick Tuck Gallery in Toronto.
  • 8 Jean Baudrillard, Subjective Discourse or the Non-Functional System of Objects from Revenge of the Crystal, Paris, Gallimard, 1968, p. 39-40.
  • 9 Toronto artist, Stan Denniston’s Reminders consisted of several pairs of photographs of various North American urban, rural or other landscapes. The photographs were taken by Stan Denniston on his various travels in a process where sometimes a particular scene would remind this artist of another site. The finally paired photographs recorded both, the landscape that triggered the memory and the landscape that was remembered (after the artist had found and returned to photograph it).
  • 10 Richard Rhodes, Decalog, C Magazine, No. 26, June 1990, p.51.