What Do You Believe, Your Eyes, or My Words

An introduction into the work of Ralph Collier

The Writer is one of the most complex, successful and still functional automatons made in the 18th century by Swiss clock maker Pierre Jacquet-Droz. In an eponymous work from 2007, French artist Philippe Parreno films the mechanized doll writing “What do you believe, your eyes or my words?” The message points to Parreno’s preoccupation with perceptual ambiguity and the porous boundaries between subject and object. However emblematic for his artistic pursuits, the concerns the question entails are arguably equally central to the practice of Antwerp-based artist Ralph Collier (b. 1990, B). In his works, Collier questions the nature of image, exhibition and reality by carefully unhinging their constitutive elements and meticulously modifying their fundamental or formal qualities.

The artist reflects on the status of the image, what it can or should mean, and how it can be spectated, especially in the current culture of image overload. Collier considers that there are always ample contextual influences acting upon the viewer, hence impacting the way s/he can read an image. This subjective process of seeing is something he works with frequently, but recently, he has also shifted attention to the physical process of seeing. In his latest artistic-curatorial project Peripheral Vision (forthcoming), a research into optics has become the Leitmotiv. It is a collaborative project with artist Vincent Egon Verschueren, manifesting itself in different iterations on a rented commercial billboard just outside the city of Antwerp (B), promulgating a phenomenological understanding not of the sharply focused centre, but of the usually unfocused phenomena occurring on the periphery of our visual field.

Noteworthy in Peripheral Vision is also the conceived mode of display: the outdoors location, far away from a scripted white cube or black box, the intervals introducing a new chapter, the advertisement space few people pay long attention to. Embedded in this propositional undertaking is undeniably Collier’s fascination for the exhibition format. Having received an education in curating after his MFA, he has a thorough knowledge of the conventions and characteristics of exhibitions, which fosters his curiosity to play with one or more of the model’s parameters. In The Hidden Character Scores (2016) he can for instance be seen as a conductor through time and space, exploring the elasticity of the exhibition as medium. From the inaccessible basement of Van der Mieden Gallery (Antwerp, B), the music of an earlier staged performance of two simultaneously played piano and violin pieces used by Alfred Hitchcock in The Birds, could be heard on unannounced moments. In this way, the piece rhythmicized the experience of the exhibition in which it was presented. Moreover, many visitors would also miss the piece, perhaps begging the question: did it actually take place?

For this is another area in which Collier revels: the liminal space where reality and fiction oscillate. A first glimpse into his interrogation of how reality is perceived or described, is to be found in his early work Doubling (2013), for which he also was awarded the first place in the Concordia Concours organized by PAK (Gistel, B). Capturing a fractured view on a classical sculpture, the video work shows a form of seeing, of being in, a fragile state between what is real and what not. The same ungraspable zone of in-between-ness is examined in the ongoing project An Absence of a Presence. The piece provides a psychological portrait of the park Rivierenhof (Deurne, B), the open-air theatre located there, and the surveilled condition of people now. With the crucial switch in perspective, the film attests to the idea, like Doubling, that there is no strict dichotomy between the truth of what is present, and the falsity of what is absent, but rather that both are continuously mediated.

Collier teases the viewer, shifts what s/he more often than not does not see. He exposes that which otherwise remains unnoticed, even when in plain sight. This exposure sometimes materializes in one single gesture, placing a (mimesis of a) visual remnant which generates meaning. The glove in Method Acting (2017) can be interpreted as a literal reference to the unplanned scene in the film On the Waterfront, in which actress Eva Marie Saint accidentally drops her glove, and Marlon Brando improvises along with the situation still in character, hence briefly blurring reality and fiction. However, Collier’s work does not necessarily need to refer to the film by which it was inspired. Rather, it is an image of an image, functioning as a material portal to immaterial ideas, behaviours and/or emotions. This approach is perhaps most explicit, as the title already suggests, in Testifying of a Real Random Encounter (2016). It is a business card (printed in an edition of 100) reading the message Nicolas Bourriaud wrote in Collier’s copy of his book Relational Aesthetics upon a chance meeting. The work again is more a testament of a fleeting moment in time and space, a leftover that starts to live a life on its own.

In line with this, it is perhaps ironic, or on the contrary serendipitous, that in relational aesthetics, the specific designation of the object is scrutinized. For it is not what can be seen, but what takes place between people that makes up the essence of the artwork. The artist is a facilitator, an orchestrator, an experience curator, more than a maker. This legacy of non-visual concept-based installation art is something that Collier harkens back to. In the proposed piece for the upcoming exhibition Time Slip (March 2018, Bikini Space, Basel, CH), he wants to alter the sensor of the main entrance’s sliding doors, consequently forcing viewers to change their habitual pattern. Similar to many works associated with relational aesthetics, including for example Parreno’s, the visitor’s experience thus becomes the means and the result. As tends to be the case with Collier, one always is left wondering what there is to be seen, how, in what circumstance, and whether or not it is to be believed.