Georges Rousse installation viewing
Saturday, Oct. 29
, 5 p.m.–9 p.m.
Durham Fruit & Produce Company
305 South Dillard Street, Durham

Over the last week and a half, in a Durham warehouse space, Georges Rousse has managed a team of community members through many hours of painstaking art labor to produce a pair of illusionistic installations. On Saturday, the French artist will stand behind a camera and photograph them. And then, after the shutters click, the installations will be dead to him.

On Saturday night, as part of the Click! Triangle Photography Festival, the Durham Fruit & Produce Company opens for a public viewing of Rousse’s blue room and his “dream” room, even though they’re not really the works that Rousse claims as his. He’s after photographs, and these two transformed spaces, interesting as they are, are a means to that end.

Saturday’s event at the Fruit also offers documentaries and a pop-up show of work by South African artist Zanele Muholi, who’s been in residence at Cassilhaus, in collaboration with Lerato Dumse, Lindeka Qampi, and Thembela “Terra” Dick.

In addition to the Saturday-night Rousse viewing, which will be followed by a Click! closing party at Ponysaurus, the installations will be open for additional viewings on Thursday and Friday, Nov. 3 and 4 from 5–7 p.m., and on Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 5 and 6, from noon through 6 p.m.

Despite Rousse’s ambivalence about these pieces as installations, they’re terrific to see in person, like getting to sit backstage during a play, or having a magician let you see how he or she does the tricks. Tromp l’oeil on a large scale, they mess a bit with your vision in a way that a photograph might not be able to anymore, now that most of us have the means to pull off comparable illusionistic image manipulations via the apps on our phones. At the least, seeing the space in person makes Rousse’s photos that much better.

In the blue room, Rousse has positioned a camera at one end and then had his team of community members paint the other end blue in several stages. First, the perimeter of the camera’s visual field was blued-out to leave a perfect white square in the middle, which he photographed. The white square was then filled in with a paler blue for the final photograph.

Every surface in the room received paint, not just the walls but the ceiling and floor as well as the furniture, light fixtures, light switches—everything. As the team was painting, Rousse would step behind the camera to get the single-point perspective he was going for, and then give instructions to his painters to correct divergent points in the image by straightening a line on the wall or building a drywall baffle to block some window light.

The “dream” installation is even more elaborate than the blue room. Volunteers painted out the images in hundreds upon hundreds of sheets of newspapers, rendering the journalistic photographs into black rectangles. Then, they wallpapered one corner of a room opposite a camera’s position. Lastly, the letters of the word “dream” were painted onto the newspapers so that they appear to the camera’s eye to hover in the space.

Both installations have an unresolvable depth and dimensionality that causes them to shake a bit to the eye, like how the famous duck-rabbit optical illusion flicks back and forth between duck and rabbit in one’s consciousness even as the image remains static. This is pleasurable to see, especially on the scale at which Rousse works, and getting to stand in the middle of it to really fill your eyes with it is a remarkable optical experience.

This isn’t Rousse’s first visit to Durham. When the artist visited a decade ago, the city had many more undeveloped properties in which to put comparable installations, including the Chesterfield building of the vacant Liggett & Myers cigarette factory on West Main Street, the Bargain Furniture building on East Chapel Hill Street downtown, and the Liberty Warehouse located between Rigsbee and Foster streets (replaced now by a condominium complex under construction). That visit was a potent injection of contemporary art on a scale that Durham simply hadn’t seen at that time.

Optics aside, the meaning and message of Rousse’s installations are open to interpretation. The blue room seems a straightforward take on the opportunity that the architecture and light of that specific room offered the artist. When asked, “Why blue?” Rousse responded with a kind of shrug—it was an intuitive choice, no more complex than his sense that blue would look good in that room with that light. He mentioned green, for instance, and made a face like he had bitten a lemon.

While it has as much for the eye as the blue room does, the “dream” installation has plenty for the mind, too. In one way, the dream installation re-appropriates representation itself. By obliterating all the images in the newspapers in order to make a single image himself, Rousse has taken back photography and purified the act and value of image-making. The problematized dimensionality of the “dream” room forces a viewer to marry thought with look and prompts questions like “How did he do that?” Viewers will be stepping back and forth in the room, breaking and re-forming the letters of the word “dream.”

There’s a politics in this. Rousse wants to awaken your engagement with the space through an optical trick. That he’s perfectly willing to show you his hands as he does the trick should make for an interesting Saturday night.