At a Digital Distance, Débora Delmar’s Show Emphasizes Invisible Systems

Débora Delmar, '[         ],' 2020, exhibition view, Interface, Oakland. (Courtesy the artist and Interface, Oakland)

We can’t visit art the way we used to. Unless an artwork is out in the world, unhindered by walls or doors, it’s cooped up just like the rest of us, waiting patiently to be seen.

So we turn to our screens: for online shows, digital galleries, even exhibitions mounted in Animal Crossing. In most instances, these digital offerings are not so different from the documentation that might have gone online to showcase an exhibition to out-of-towners. (Perhaps, as an audience used to gazing at New York and Los Angeles shows from afar, the Bay Area is better suited to this practice.)

For the most part, I’ve resisted “visiting” these newly digital offerings, taking a petulant stance (“It’s not supposed to be this way”). But when Interface Gallery director Suzanne L’Heureux offered to guide me through a vicarious experience of her current show, I reminded myself this is actually my job, and that I can afford to be flexible about my in-person principles while staying safely at home.

Débora Delmar, '1/2 Onement VI (Mayfair Businessman),' 2020; Offcut fabrics sourced from Saville Row, thread, canvas. (Courtesy the artist and Interface, Oakland)

Unlike the vast majority of Bay Area galleries, L’Heureux chose to open a new show during shelter in place—a physical one. She and the artist, London-based Débora Delmar, decided the work made sense in the current context and that installing the show—ready-made sculptures and a wall piece fabricated by an Oakland artist—wouldn’t pose a health risk to anyone involved.

Now, [          ], which opened on April 18, can be seen in the form of installation images, or courtesy of L’Heureux’s live walk-throughs, happening regularly on Instagram. The show will be at a remove for everyone else for its duration, but this makes some sense for Delmar’s work, which calls attention to how both goods and people move through the world.

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Or, at present, don’t move.

Highlighting barriers of entry isn’t a new aspect of Delmar’s work. For her installation at this year’s Material Art Fair in Mexico City, she fabricated a gate to block entry to the booth. Artworks appropriated from old advertising materials could be seen through the iron bars, and only three custom key sets opened the lock. Even when the artist and gallery left the gate open, they found many people were unwilling to cross the line into the booth.

Débora Delmar, 'Barrier (2),' 2020; Twenty Lancaster Table & Seating 17" Round Black 3" Standard Height Column Table Base, cable ties. (Courtesy the artist and Interface, Oakland)

The invisible barriers that guard museums and galleries—even those that are free to enter—are as well known as they are difficult to break down. But Delmar’s [          ] (a bracketed space that strongly delineates between inside and out) brings in symbols of other economies, giving them the minimalist, art historical treatment. The acrylic surveillance mirrors become miniature Walter de Marias. The stacked cast-iron table bases are a cafe Richard Serra. And against the gallery’s longest wall, offcut fabric from London’s Savile Row assembles into a half-sized version of Barnett Newman’s Onement VI.

In my Zoom tour of the show, I missed the ability to move at my own pace, to observe an object in silence and direct my own gaze. L’Heureux generously became my avatar, moving her camera closer to requested details and stepping outside to give me a view of the show from an empty Temescal Alley. I took copious handwritten notes, just like I would in person, but I wonder what different thoughts might have entered my mind during an unmediated experience of the work. There’s simply no way to know.

In an essay commissioned to accompany the show, Danica Sachs writes about the new awareness Delmar’s show has prompted in her everyday shelter-in-place experiences. The absence of people—both in [          ] and the public space at large—heightens her awareness of those who always existed below the level of visibility. “Systems held tenuously in place by a largely unseen labor force that allowed us to move through our capitalist society with ease are now irrelevant or obsolete,” she writes.

Similarly, the artworks in [          ] are incomplete in ways that emphasize the labor (and consumption) that ordinarily circulates around such objects. Beaming ourselves into Delmar’s show, via livestreams or astral projection, we recreate, as best we can, the experience of in-person art viewing. But the resulting discomfort—of not having control, of not seeing things clearly—is a reminder of just how inaccessible certain aspects of society (galleries included) are for many, even in the best of times.

Which begs the question: When we are allowed to re-enter our public spaces, will we allow those systems to reinstate themselves, and render invisible those who work within them, in exactly the same ways?

‘[          ]’ is on view at Interface Gallery in Oakland through May 31. Details here.