Looking at the work of Graham Caldwell can be an unsettling experience, the barrage of mirrors pointing every direction, discomfort settling in as you realize not only can you see everyone else, but they can see you. Pieces like Compound Eye above struck a chord in the years immediately following Wikileak's first major info dumps following severals decades of societies rapidly increasing their surveillance systems, with London serving as an early symbol of the post-modern panopticon state whose insidious reach we had only just begun to understand. However that was only the beginning of what we know now.
In the wake of whistle blowers like Edward Snowden revealing the extent of the NSA's ability to spy on our digital activities, Caldwell's work feels like a prescient foretelling of what was to come. Recent works like the below Watch Post (2014) installed in the Foggy Bottom District of Washington D.C. slyly mock the often absurd multi-camera posts found extending from buildings or light posts, which identify (and automatically fine) drivers breaking the speed limit when no police are present. What's most curious is that the residents of Foggy Bottom have petitioned to have the temporary installation made a permanent fixture of the neighborhood, signaling a possible dulling of our outrage at the notion of always being watched (or maybe on top of helping pedestrians to see oncoming traffic better, they just like it.)
Perhaps our growing indifference to the insidious panopticon society increasingly surrounding us is due to its growing invisibility. While cameras are unlikely to be replaced anytime soon, they are becoming smaller and more insonspicuous. Meanwhile, would we know of the extent of the NSA's reach--would Angela Merkel?--had it not been for figures like Snowden?
It seems like little coincidence that a recent show at G Fine Art Gallery in D.C. was entitled "Invisibility Cloaks." After all, the reflective nature of glass also provides an opportunity to lose oneself in a feedback loop of the gaze, be it narcissism or insecurity (and it's often a mixture of both, isn't it?) mirrors allow us to hide from our selves by often seeing what we ultimately want to see.
Alas, his show titles seem to reveal more than his often descriptive sculpture titles do. "The Uncanny Valley," another show of his at G Fine Art Gallery refers to the concept forged by robotics professor Masahiro Mori in 1970 to describe the phenomena that occurs when a human encountering a human replica will experience increased feelings of empathy the more a robot or model resembles a human. However, at a certain point, one will experience a dip, or valley, in empathy as the near-human quality of the robot elicits an uncanny repulsion, before rising again as a mirror image is achieved. One theory surrounding this phenomenon is that the replica will provoke a sense of otherness in the viewer due to feeling as if the replica does not quite match up to the person in terms of anthropocentric criteria, showing our desire to see other humans as mirrored assurances of our own identities.
Caldwell himself comments on the uncanniness and sense of alienation caused by perception and modulating reflection in his artist's statement:
My practice is concerned with the elasticity of sight, and the way visual perception constructs and distorts the immediate external world. The Russian Formalists used the term “defamiliarization” to describe an alienating effect in literature that imparts a vividness to the work of art. I attempt to apply this concept to the visual realm.
As seen in the piece above, this "vividness" translates to a sensibility that would at times make Yayoi Kusuma smile.
The Russian Formalists used the term “defamiliarization” to describe an alienating effect in literature that imparts a vividness to the work of art. I attempt to apply this concept to the visual realm. I am interested in the historic and intrinsic association between glass and the act of looking, from the early lenses that allowed glimpses into the microscopic world, to the eyeglasses, ubiquitous windows, and mirrors inside telescopes that let us to peer into space. Much of my work focuses on glass as a conduit or modulating agent for light and its parallel in the functionality of the human eye: using a lens to flip an image of the world, upside down and backwards, into the brain where it is reassembled, through illusion and forensics.
At the end of the day, Caldwell's glass sculptures start to resemble a hall of mirrors that is at times shapely, at times polychromatic, and altogether powerful, holding up a looking glass to this cultural and political moment as a whole and keeping it there. After all, just because "they" might always be looking doesn't mean we can't look back.