Encountering James Coleman’s So Different… and Yet

Encountering James Coleman’s So Different… and Yet

Thirty years have passed since I first viewed James Coleman’s So Different… and Yet from a couch in an old Edwardian parlour that had been remodelled as the Nigel Greenwood gallery. To re-encounter the work is to recall what was, for me, a significant artistic event that has not lost its eloquence. But it is also to see it from a perspective coloured by experience of the artist’s subsequent work and interpretations by various distinguished scholars. Hence, this lecture is a further re-reading of a complex work that poses questions about how we perceive and interpret the world; and yet, famously, eludes all attempts at exhaustive analysis.

So Different… and Yet signalled the expansion of Coleman’s artistic repertoire to include elements of dramaturgy: sets, props, costumes, voiced scripts and choreographed gestures, realised with an ensemble of actors. Whilst So Difference… and Yet was a performance pre-recorded on video, it was followed by three live-performed works: Now and Then, 1981, Ignotum per Ignotius, 1982-84, and GuaiRE: An Allegory, 1985.

This use of performance was again reinvented through the format by which Coleman’s work is best known: the slide-audiotape projection and the tableau vivant. An ancient form of popular entertainment exemplified by the mediaeval ‘mystery’ or ‘passion’ play, the tableau typically presents an arrested scene in an implied narrative and, often, a quotation of a pre-existing picture. As a rhetorical device, it has had a symbiotic relation to the pictorial traditions of painting, early photography, the magic lantern show, animation and the theatre revue.

Coleman’s early tableaux are animated with poetic vocal narrations, sometimes sung, sometimes with musical accompaniment, which pay tribute to the voice in oral storytelling traditions, as well as attending to the popular conventions of pulp fiction, the comic book or fotoromanza, the serialised TV soap opera and fashion display. Indeed, Coleman was among the first artists to cite unashamedly the codes of such literary and theatrical popular, or ‘low’ genres, many of which fall into the ‘women’s fiction/ interest’ category, which is generally dismissed as appealing to a banal emotionalism. And yet, as it becomes clearer later, the artist’s acute understanding of the social function of these codes was instrumental in the development of his work. Through their astute manipulation, Coleman was able to explore the relationship between subjective and cultural memory. It is this exploration that distinguishes So Different… and Yet from his work of previous decades whilst opening onto contemporary socio-political relevance.

On the face of it, Coleman’s use of video for So Different… and Yet, seems out of place in a body of work known firstly as film then as slide projection, although the rhythmic change of poses presented by the woman in the green dress seems to prefigure the sequencing of slide projection. But Coleman’s use of video at this time seems particularly pertinent. In the early 1980s, the artist’s video was technically still tied to the domestic TV format, which was increasingly instrumental in showing its audience how to inhabit the world, whilst blurring the distinction between fiction and lived reality. This is the point the artist had begun to explore in the earlier work entitled Kojak and Zamora, which remains in a suspended state of animation. The work drew on the real life court case in Florida, the first to be televised, in which the defence for the accused youth claimed he so identified with the TV actor that he had fatally confused the boundary between the real and the fictional.


For its time, So Different… and Yet stretched available video technology to its limit. On the one hand, analogue video was free from the fictions of editing. So Different… and Yet capitalised on this structural feature through its apparent, single hour-long take, which, for the receiver, produces the vitality of a live radio or TV dramatic performance. On the other hand, analogue video had certain limitations. The only technical means of disrupting perspectival logic was chromo-key: by recording one image against a black or blue backdrop, a second image could be superimposed. The effect of chromo-key in So Different… and Yet renders ambiguous whether the two figures occupy the same pictorial space, or even the same temporality. The work thus plays across the interface of two contestatory forms of image-production: the indexical capacity of photography, film and analogue video to position an observer in the real world, versus the capacity of painting – and now digitisation – to produce a fictitious pictorialism outside the observer’s reality.

The first observation to make about the presentational structure of So Different… and Yet, and related works, is that, although usually bracketed under the generalised term ‘installation’, they more properly present a ‘setting’, or, better, a ‘set’: a mise-en-scène of recording or playback equipment and props, as in actors prior to filming, or models preparing for a fashion-shoot. That is, a set of circumstances or a situation that anticipates an event, which is none other than the event of art itself. This observation is retrospective, following my experience of a subsequent set of works from the early 1990s – I N I T I A L S, Background and Lapsus Exposure – which, by deliberately directing our gaze to the architectural setting and props, discloses the background as always implicated in the foreground, the past as already a condition of the future.

In So Different… and Yet, we, the viewers, are spatially included in the set as if ‘mirroring’ the projected image. Seated amongst the apparatuses by which the image is produced ‘for us’ (given that it only exists when we are both ‘plugged in’, as it were), we are invited to be participants in the unfolding artifice. In foregrounding the set of circumstances that frame the viewing experience, Coleman invites us to consider the extent to which we construct meaning by way of the context in which something happens – or appears to us – much as Wittgenstein argued that meaning resided not in some fixed prior essence of language, but in its use. If it is the tendency of instrumental uses of language in the socio-political sphere to conceal this inherent indeterminacy under the cloak of ideological, or technological certitude, one task of poetic language is to disclose such certitude as a fallacy of power. And Coleman’s poetics is particularly attentive to language, offering an experience of the itinerancy of visual and verbal signifiers – which, as we soon realise, cannot be stabilised into any single, coherent meaning.

So Different… and Yet had a long gestation; and, since its inception, has undergone several transformations in formal presentation. It was begun in Milan, autumn 1978, developed during 1979, and later rehearsed with the French actress Olwen Fouère and the composer Roger Doyle over several months in Dublin, where it was finally recorded in 1980. Available evidence suggests that the work first appeared in 1980 in Milan’s Palazzo Reale, in an exhibition entitled Camere incantate (Enchanted Rooms).

In its outing that same year at the Nigel Greenwood gallery in London, the setting was a room lit by a green light, and furnished with a single-screen video monitor and a couch, mimicking the kitschy domestic interiors of commercial showroom advertisements.

At the Irish Museum of Modern Art in 2010, the work was transmitted via a spectacular 12 metre LED screen, which could be viewed from multiple angles: the museum’s foyer, the inner courtyard, or the first storey windows.

However, two presentations in 2007 – at the Whitechapel Gallery, London, and MACBA, Barcelona – were specifically framed by the didactic ‘lecture’: a reference to the act of ‘reading’ or interpretation itself.

For the Whitechapel Gallery, Coleman invited Liam Gillick, an artist whose own practice incorporates citations from art and culture, to co-design the set. Here, So Different… and Yet and its presentation mutated relative to changes in technology and pedagogical museum practice. It was now a digitised video projection framed by props for a public lecture: lights, microphone, speakers, and stools by which the audience could simply swivel from screen to lecturer.

For MACBA’s exhibition Un Teatre sense teatre (A Theatre without Theatre), Coleman again presented So Different… and Yet as a video projection, now set in the eccentric, red-walled room located in the museum’s tower – a cross between a lecture theatre and a piccolo teatro.

These presentations provoked a new set of questions around framing. Wandering into the setting of empty chairs and equipment, the museum visitor might be uncertain whether the lecture had already passed, or had yet to begin. So did the didactic lecture frame the work, or vice-versa? Or did they symbiotically inhabit each other? What was the role of the lecturer – Connoisseur? Interpreter? Mediator? Storyteller? Or another actor? Where did the authority of interpretation lie, and should we be cautious about assigning any such hierarchical role at all?

Coleman’s attentiveness to the position of the viewer in So Different… and Yet is more than a extension of his earlier explorations of the nature and reception of art: the interdependence of perception and memory, and the possible disjunctions between expectation and affect. If spectator relations in the earlier works seemed to coincide with minimalism’s embodied viewer experiencing the work in real time-space, there was also recognition that minimalism, on the one hand, risked exchanging one privileged subject, the artist, for another, the viewer, and on the other, emptying the work’s space of reference to the world at large. Coleman’s radical reinterpretation was to show that, in reality, any space is an interactive product of users and the ideologies that subtend their social relations. And insofar as it is a dramatisation of encoded gestures and behavioural roles, social space is indeed ‘theatrical’.

In this respect, amongst the influential debates in the decades preceding So Different… and Yet, it is worth mentioning Berthold Brecht’s experiments with spectatorship and narrative structure. Brecht sought to make visible oppressive social relations, disguised by the dramatic spectacle of bourgeois theatre, and transform the spectator into a critical observer. His devices to disrupt the diegetic logic of dramatic narrative were intended to provoke recognition of social realities, not least, the false consciousness of self produced by identification with a central fictional character. As Althusser stated, in Brecht’s plays, this centre was deferred, ‘always to one side’. Closely aligned with Brecht, Walter Benjamin suggested that, for art to challenge the repressive illusions promoted by a hegemonic elite, the author should be a producer, and the reader, likewise, not a spectator but a self-aware collaborator in the production of meaning. Both were collectors and synthesizers of historical influences. Thus, these authors challenged the hierarchical roles conventionally assigned to author and spectator, acknowledging that the latter too is an agent in the production of meaning.

This attentiveness to the collaborative potential of the viewer enables us to place So Different… and Yet and related performed works in critical dialogue with those projections of subjectivity promoted by media – the entanglement of fiction and reality, myth and history that conditions the identities, not only of individuals but also of nations. If seeing is understood as an act of interpretation, then it follows that we need to be attentive to whose point of view is being projected on our collective screens. Whilst eschewing the pedagogical constraints of Brechtian theatre, Coleman’s tactic was to parasitize and manipulate technocracy’s use of representational codes as a means of testing – and ultimately questioning – their claims to truth; whereby, as in Michel de Certeau’s description of ‘camouflaged transgressions’ (in The Practice of Everyday Life), ‘to acknowledge the authority of rules is the exact opposite of applying them.’ The artist’s re-invention of the codes of familiar popular genres created a new space that subtly revealed, without necessarily resolving, the tension between the heterogeneity of individual experience and homogenised mediated identities. They invited the viewer to recognise the mimetic nature of social identities, where the self is impelled to dramatise itself as other.

Of the various critical commentaries that have illuminated Coleman’s work over the years, one that presents an instructive ‘take’ on the artist’s ‘camouflaged transgressions’ is Canadian critic Dot Tuer’s feminist reading of So Different… and Yet. Not because the work necessarily subscribes to feminist theory – which had its own repressive blind spots – but because the feminine, as the universal disempowered, is a familiar relief in the landscape of social relations, and is typically dramatised by patriarchy as duplicitous – a masquerade.

By the 1980s, the image of a woman posing seductively in a slinky, cocktail dress was a provocation to feminist critiques of the female image as a construction by and for the voyeuristic male gaze. This was exemplified by the pictorial tradition of the reclining odalisque, familiar in high Renaissance painting, the art school life-class, soft porn magazines and advertising. Manet’s Olympia, itself a provocation to artistic propriety in its day – insofar as the model boldly addresses the viewer – is the most obvious predecessor to So Different… and Yet.


In addition, the figure is consistent with the recurrence in Coleman’s work around this time of the ‘mannequin’, a role that shifts ambiguously between human and puppet, subject and object. In So Different… and Yet signs of the eroticised feminine are relayed not only through bodily display, but also vocal projection – the sounding – of English spoken by the French actress. It is also relevant to add that in film theory the feminist debate extended to the structure of narrative itself where, it was argued, the audience was encouraged to identify with the gaze of the male protagonist, who controlled the trajectory of the narrative and unified it into a satisfying closure – it produced HIS-story.

However, as female bodies have since become more, rather than less, exposed in mass media, so, ironically, the woman, flamboyantly dressed, punk-style, again appears very à la mode. The lecturer has no problem seeing her poses as a parody of the tabloid or Hola! magazine media celebrity displaying the latest designer creation: a sign emptied of all meaning, except the to-be-looked-at-ness of pure consumerism. (A fate we might also attribute to the art object.) But, in So Different… and Yet the way the narration and image mutually inhabit – or dis-inhabit – each other acknowledges this scopic regime, whilst subtly undermining it. As the performance unfolds we become uncertain whether her alluring poses are really addressed to ‘us’, or rather, are gestural accompaniments to her own thoughts spoken aloud, as if re-enacting conversations and encounters from her past. She seems to move around an axis of pleasure and memory that both attracts and frustrates. Dot Tuer sees here the expression of female jouissance diffused through a matrix of pleasurable but elusive visual and aural signifiers that expose the artifice of the media projected feminine.

The narrative itself is a pastiche of i gialli (Italian popular crime romances) in which two plots intersect, never cease to thicken, and, like the serialised soap opera, are endlessly ‘to be continued…’ Likewise, the saga of the green dress – the ‘object’ around which the tangled tale of theft, murder and romance pirouettes: announced as an ‘heirloom’, proclaimed unfashionable and remodelled, then stolen, only to be denounced as a ‘fake’ and recycled. Although the potpourri of narrative tropes has a nominal ‘hero’ – perhaps ‘Norman’ – any ‘heroic’ function is soon dissipated in a play of shifting identities, or aliases, deflecting the viewer’s expectation of a privileged point of view. If the interpreter is tempted to nominate the rather shadowy figure in the video’s background, playing a mélange of cocktail-lounge music on the grand piano, as the orchestrator of the action, she is soon disabused.

In effect, the woman in the green dress is the primary storyteller. As storyteller, she is both framed and framer. And – true to storytelling as an embodied tradition – we are as entranced by the ‘grain’ of her voice and her mode of telling, as by her deliberate, theatricalised gestures. In fact, these signs announce her ‘identity’ as actress. Like the players of comedic theatre, she displays her ‘identity’ like a phaneric mask, which, with blatant transparency, advertises rather than conceals.

Thus, whilst seducing us into the pleasure of the text, Coleman also presents a veritable minefield of false trails set to trap the forensic gaze of the detective-interpreter looking for a satisfying explanation, which – were he to find it, would, of course, enhance his authority over the proceedings. But, alas, it is the interpreter who is de-centred. And with this displacement, comes a heightened awareness of the act of ‘reading’ itself.

Brecht – like Gramsci earlier – was concerned with making visible the social repressions of authority, as if ordinary people were not quite aware of their positions. However, the hegemonic elite doesn’t fool all of the people all of the time; silent obedience may be rooted in fear of reprisal, or of exclusion from the social group. But how, realising one’s cultural disempowerment and political alienation, might one yet manipulate the technologies of power to one’s own advantage, even whilst knowingly entangled in them? Michel de Certeau provided a less pessimistic analogy. He proposed that, rather than simply passive, the consumer re-uses the signs of mass culture according to its own needs, often in ways contrary to those intended by producers. That is, consumption becomes another form of production, and spectatorship, participation.

To pursue this thought, let’s begin with the ‘character’ in So Different… and Yet named ‘Clarissa’. Amongst the somewhat catholic inventory of Coleman’s narrative sources is Samuel Richardson’s mid-18th century epistolary novel Clarissa or The History of a Young Lady, 1747-48. The artist may have been drawn to this work because it is a psychodrama attentive to the nuances of language. Its plot circulates around social morality, sexual intrigue and inter-subjective power struggles, drawn through the thoughts of the main protagonists, and completely unconcerned with any documentary realism of time or place. Moreover, it privileges sympathetic female characters. The novel’s parallel in visual art is the ‘conversation piece’, designed to hang over a drawing room mantelpiece and often depicting an informal family get-together. This, incidentally, is the setting to which Coleman’s subsequent Seeing for Oneself alludes.

However, there is a further element that connects the 18th century Clarissa to Coleman’s explorations of the socio-political implications of mediated representations, particularly the photograph.

More than once Clarissa’s rapacious suitor Lovelace describes his eager eyes ‘seeking and endeavouring to penetrate to her very soul’. Indeed, the entire novel is devoted to the correspondents’ dissecting their own and each others’ actions, feelings and motives, especially Clarissa’s, to the extent that she is written – and indeed writes herself – to death. Maybe she was always a ‘corpse’ insofar as she represents an impossible female ideal, only possible in and as the corpus of the literary text. Thus far, she prefigures the airbrushed celebrity photograph. In addition, Lovelace’s desiring gaze – which, as in the Orphic myth, loses its object the moment it has it in its sights – connects to what Foucault describes as the emergence in the 18th century of the ‘medical gaze’. That is, with regimes of truth articulated through vision.

For Foucault, the medical gaze originates in autopsy – ‘seeing for oneself’ – linked to the dissection of a corpse: the body as spectacle, now laid out in the ‘operating theatre’ for the public gaze. This medical gaze is later projected onto the morbid living body using various prosthetic devices, like the stethoscope and the X-ray. These tools enabled a geometric penetration of the body beyond surface symptoms: the invisible supposedly rendered visible, but at the cost of inscribing death as the measure and possibility of life. Turned on the luckless Clarissa, the medical gaze is – as Foucault says – ‘that fixed, attentive, rather dilated gaze which, from the height of death, has already condemned life.’

In Terry Eagleton’s analysis of Richardson’s novel, the conflict between Clarissa and Lovelace represents the power struggle between an emerging, moralistic bourgeoisie and a decadent aristocracy, in which female subjectivity – as Richardson recognised – is a manipulated, ideological pawn, itself never fully realisable. The price the 18th century Clarissa pays for attempting to grasp subjective agency, given the patriarchal strictures of her time, is death. Not so the female protagonists in So Different… and Yet and Seeing for Oneself, whose scenarios seem to suggest that to fake death in the image may be to liberate the voice of the living. They reject the prescriptions of the status quo by deflecting its gaze.

What seems to preoccupy Coleman’s work around this time is this: Is it not precisely this penetrating, medical gaze, with all its sexual connotations – which, as Foucault says, ‘dominates and founds all perceptual experiences’ – that finds its most seductive expression through the medium of photography? The photograph as an index, not of the ‘real’, but of a certain mode of looking that offers a transparent reality, and yet in which the ‘thing’ passes away in the very instant it is captured. The gaze, like Lovelace’s, that desires to possess the essence of life, persistently fails to penetrate the surface emulsion, the photographic event.

In Coleman’s work, the meaning of the projected image – like the Greek painting-as-veil – lies not in the picture but in what we invest, or project into it, according to the historical and ideological positions from which we speak and understand the world; in the contextual support acquired through semantics or serialisation. That is, by framing, which, in Coleman’s work, is alluded to by the ‘set’: that which is visually off-centre, or even off-stage – in the background that produces the illusions of the foreground. In this respect, the work’s refusal to offer any privileged viewpoint, or transparency of meaning, is articulated around dis-framing: an anamorphic gaze, which undermines the centred gaze of authority, which is, of course, famously articulated by the skull in Holbein’s Ambassadors.

Thus the theatrical space that So Different… and Yet most recalls is the self-consciousness meta-theatre of burlesque. We might recall the burlesque aspects of Shakespearean theatre – the mistaken identities, the gender masquerades, the ironic asides of its minor characters drawn from everyday life. A politicised theatre, whose audience – as Brecht understood – was a participant, who recognised the play as artifice and role-play, and through it, saw the dramatised nature of identity and society itself. Burlesque inherited what Mikhail Bakhtin called the ‘popular carnivalesque’. Through the tropes of the carnivalesque we find a space to experience enjoyment in being a participant rather than a spectator in a collective event, where ‘dressing-up’ or ‘camping-up’ produces an irreverent frisson of pleasure in undermining the conventions, or claims to truth, of prescribed realities and identities, which is why authority traditionally sees the carnivalesque as seditious.

The structure of Coleman’s work as audiovisual ‘projection’ finds its complement in content. The play on fashion and style in So Different… and Yet – carried over into Now and Then, 1981, and Lapsus Exposure, 1993 – explore clothes and gestures as visual signs establishing the projected identity of the subject. But, if clothes are a visual semiotics designed to announce one’s actual or desired affiliation to one or another group identity, conforming to the prescriptions of society, they can equally be a form of camouflage and dissimulation. A pantomimic dressing-up that releases libidinal energy, through which, to reiterate Michel de Certeau’s point, ‘to acknowledge the authority of rules is the exact opposite of applying them’ – a recognition of the imposture of the medical gaze and the pre-recorded voice, whose dead certainties are themselves no more than a theatrical legerdemain to deflect the self from the means of seeing for itself. This is, in effect, to acknowledge the in-authenticity of all pre-scribed identities. The mischievous humour of Coleman’s projections thus lies in disclosing how our lives are mostly lived in the in-authenticity of projected selves; but now and then, for an instant, perhaps through the liberatory event of art, we may catch a deeper sense of existence.

Thus the task that So Different… and Yet invites us to perform is a hermeneutic one: to let go of our preconceptions and to engage – to borrow from Schleiermacher – the ‘art of listening’; an attentiveness not, of course, confined to the ear. We are invited to ‘listen’, to let the artwork speak its sounds and silences. Each time differently, because, like subjectivity itself, interpretation is always open to transformation, always ‘to be continued…’

So what can be said of the ‘object’ in So Different… and Yet around which the drama of transformation pivots: the shiny green dress? The lecturer might speculate that it figures the artwork itself, ‘dressed-up’ in its enigmatic ‘to-be-looked-at-ness’: now an heirloom, now a fake, teetering between the fashionable and the obsolete, the valuable and the valueless, something and nothing. Art as an allegorical sign of the simultaneous banality and transcendent aspiration of the human subject. And yet, despite the vicissitudes of changing fashion, art’s integrity remains in its ability to question power’s fallacious claim to represent the truth of existence, and open onto another space of interpretation. It is this critical potential of art, explored with uncommon wit and humour, that seems to motivate Coleman’s So Different… and Yet. It provides a clue to its enduring fascination, to its subtly framed politics, and – one might add – to its wily capacity to evade the lecturer’s rational explanations.

Version of a performed lecture directed by James Coleman and delivered at various museum venues between 2007 and 2011.