Siobhan Hapaska

Peer, London

Art Monthly, Issue 278, Jul-Aug 2004

Playa de los Intranquilos, the installation is called. Beach of the Restless. Peer's small, shop-fronted space at the less-gentrified end of Hoxton Street has had a makeover. The floor is covered in golden sand, there are a couple of palm trees, and the always-welcome sound of gently breaking waves fills the air. The walls are bright, pre-dusk orange. The sea meets the land, the sun meets the horizon, the day meets the night ... all the sublimely relaxing cliches are in place. What could be more tranquil?

But this is a poisoned Eden, a synthetic anti-Paradise: the result not of cosmic forces but industrial production. The orange paint on the walls is a bit too acid - connoting the fluorescent orange of emergency workers' jackets as much as sunlight raking through coastal air. And the palm trees? Well, their sweeping green fronds are plastic, and their hairy, spiky trunks are made up of other, dead palms that have been chopped up to create these Frankenstein versions that only stay upright only because they have been planted in concrete. We are reminded that deserts are not always idylls, and that orange can mean Guantanamo Bay as much as sunset.

Of course, what shatters the apparent serenity of the installation more than anything else is the beast that dominates the centre of the diorama: a large, black-lacquered blob with a sheepskin cloak, stunted arms and a video screen for a face. It hunches on the edge of a glass cube. This tank is filled with coconuts that are turned to face the screen, their 'eyes' transfixed by the looped video shining down. What is it that they find so compelling? Nothing less than an endless cycle of their own destruction. While a strip along the bottom of the display shows breaking waves, most of the screen is taken up with footage of a male hand repeatedly placing coconuts on the sand and - Pow! - smashing them with a chrome bat. As soon as one is broken, the hand gets another and does it again. A small pool of coconut water forms as several are dispatched quickly with terrific, hollow pops. The practised, mechanical nature of the action suggests conveyor-belt industrialisation - a simple process to be measured in terms of efficiency.

To find this disturbing, you need to have a great facility for anthropomorphism and an abundance of empathy, but it's not impossible. The coconuts are not unlike the tiny green aliens from Toy Story, which are contained in a fairground glass box and beholden to the mechanical claw that occasionally descends and pulls one out. The joke is that they think the claw is a kind of god ('I have been chosen. Farewell, my friends. I go to a better place.'), which is funny precisely because it is a perfectly rational interpretation of the information available. As with the prisoners in Plato's cave, a belief system springs up to explain the microcosm's logic. While Siobhan Hapaska's coconuts don't elicit quite such a degree of empathy, we do understand that this is a model of terror. We also recognise that the malice is displaced. The question is, displaced from what?

How can we understand this black beast? It actually resembles nothing so much as the cabinet for Computer Space, the first arcade videogame released in 1971. Although this was a futuristic-looking object at the time, the game it contained was based on Spacewar!, the first interactive videogame that had been developed almost a decade earlier by students at MIT. The arcade cabinet's futurism was already retro, and its content was hardly new, so why is it still remembered? Because of its mass audience - that was its innovation. The same is true of this black object; while it is styled like a ghost of a future that will never happen, its novelty is its audience. Coconuts may have been cracked by humans for millennia, but they have never had to watch it before.

So this creature is a spectre of technology: not military technology, but media technology. The terror is the dissemination. Interestingly, the beast's face is an LCD panel, so every pixel is crisp and bright, but the picture is crunchy from the lossy digital compression techniques being used. And why would video be compressed? For distribution; if you want to disseminate video footage - say on the internet, say of a beheading - you would want it compressed. The point, as Baudrillard has pointed out, is not the violence but the viewing. We may not understand what is going on within Hapaska's monster - it is a sealed black box, after all - but its deliberate sleekness gives the impression that it is following some internal logic, whether this is based on limited information or not. And we know how convincing even an impoverished representation can be; we willingly collude in the imagining of this fictitious beach environment because it appeals to our most basic fantasies - we want it to be true. And so we allow the Medusa to paralyse its targets, all the while complicit in the act.

In the 90s, Hapaska's quirky narrative elements made her work stand out from the crowd, now it is her slick fabrication techniques that seem idiosyncratic. We should be thankful her work continues to get sand in the Vaseline.

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