Lite Therapy: Exposing the Confusions of Consuming Desire in Diane Borsato’s Exhibition How to Eat Light

Erica Brisson

Visitors to Diane Borsato’s Fall 2005 exhibition How to Eat Light witnessed an unusual counseling session upon entering Gallerie Occurrence. Her video,Consulting the Plants, perched up on the wall to the right of the entrance, displayed the artist repeatedly asking banal questions—including whether she should move to another city or stay in the same place—to a small house plant. The twelve other photo-textual works that comprised the exhibition followed this same solitary woman character as she interacted with a world of objects in offbeat ways documented in the form of performance interventions. This character is an everywoman protagonist whose desire for comfort sometimes compels her to act excessively and inappropriately. The interventions are a mapping of desire that parody the psychology of the imagination, which is a mental space where an individual can conflate objects and ideas to bring a sense of comfort. Gestures involving objects ranging from food to dead rabbits reveal how sensual objects can serve a therapeutic function, expose the mechanics of transcendent experience as a form of self-loving through an exploration of ‘synthesthesia,’ and reveal the appeal and indignity of such auto-erotics. Borsato’s works pick up on the theme of the emotionally self-sufficient woman as part of the mythology of contemporary life by using the photo-text and the testimonial, two advertising inspired strategies, and draw from traditional stereotypes of female irrationality and vulnerability and more contemporary positive visions of self-determination that reveal the independent contemporary woman’s ambiguous and sometimes contradictory social roles. The artist’s ironic self-styling as equal parts sincere participant and subverting insurgent, seen through her use of a discrete form of intervention, suggests an ambivalent attitude towards the confused underbelly of the independent woman’s psychology.

Borsato’s work consistently exposes a desire for comfort at the heart of stereotypical female rituals, a desire which is revealed when she transforms situations that would usually involve human interaction into opportunities for self-love, taking the form of desire to touch and hold onto inanimate objects and excessively repeat romantic and caring gestures. In Mannequin Impossible, an earlier intervention, Borsato took a facsimile of a young soldier from the museum of the Royal Military College of Canada and brought it to the college prom. By clutching a doll-like figure for such a long period of time, Borsato mixes the ‘security guard’ stereotype in the form of a child’s comfort toy (such as a stuffed animal or the ubiquitous ‘blankie’), and the adolescent who feels secure and popular with a date.

The works in this show continue an ongoing tradition of working with stereotypical female rituals and reinventing them by applying unconventional strategies involving inanimate objects. Eating Light Among the Plants (fig. 1) refers to nurturing and healing through exposure to light; Rolling on the Lawn at the CCA to making out or ‘rolling around in the hay’ with a lover; Sleeping with Cak e to spending the night with someone; andEmbroidery Bandit to a mother’s loving care connoted by hand mending. While the images of the interventions are not straightforward documents but sensuous fragments of body parts and environments that seem more like visual poetry, the accompanying texts are candid confessions which testify to Borsato’s intention of trying to comfort herself by understanding the feelings of others. She tries to achieve this empathy by interacting with objects in a way in which she literally becomes closer. She also uses her senses in conventionally inappropriate situations. She takes a beautiful vista, for example, in Caressing the View, which a spectator would normally appreciate with the sense of sight, and she tries to touch it.

Borsato has linked her emphasis on the senses to the idea of synesthesia [1]. Synesthesia is a neurological term that describes the perception of a sensory experience through another sense (eg. a jazz musician who sees the colour blue when he hears a passage in a song). It is a rare ability that is considered innate and un-learnable, and it is often associated with artistic creation [2]. Although trying to have a real synesthetic experience and possibly share it with an audience might be a futile gesture, the artist performs a desire for magical transformation that sometimes gets results. The phenomenon of synesthesia has a mystical dimension because it is, in some ways, elusive and indescribable. Many synesthetics report other abnormal psychological experiences such as empathic healing. Synesthesia also involves the right side of the brain—considered to be the centre of creative and irrational activity [3]. The trope of synesthesia therefore gives Borsato’s gestures an air of abnormality and mystery. In touching 1000 people, the artist confesses that when she heard that touch could make people feel better, she set out to touch 1000 people in a month and found herself becoming affectionate in unexpected ways: “I couldn’t help myself from smiling at strangers, petting dogs tied up at shops, telling jokes to taxi drivers, and winking at tired waitresses.”

At the same time she deploys puns in droves to demystify the synethesic experience by laying bare its construction. If a person looks out a window with a view behind and experiences a ‘touching’ feeling, there is no more provable link between sense and reaction. Caressing the View is about a ‘touching landscape,’ or a landscape that makes a strong emotional impression. The punning joke is known as a ‘groaner’ because it recalls a formal relationship between words that bear no meaningful connection. These puns suggest an impossible relationship between sensory experience and emotional impressions. A strong impression in the presence of conventionally beautiful or sensual objects is sometimes called transcendent. The transcendent feeling is a calm mix of exaltation and understanding that could also be called comfort. Called ‘aesthetic experience’ by Monroe Beardsley, this transcendence describes a feeling of harmony between a spectator and the object of his/her perception [4].

As a parody of synesthesia, Borsato’s works critique transcendent experience. The experience of art and consumer commodities creates transcendent experiences because the combination of beauty and sensuousness convinces buyers and spectators to believe that a product is new and desirable. Critics of commodity culture call transcendent experience a misleading conflation of an object and an idea [5]. For anthropologist Grant McCracken, the commodity can function as a ‘bridge good,’ meaning that a consumer achieves a sense of drawing closer to a desire through acquiring a new object that symbolically represents his/her ideal. The consumer thus ‘displaces meaning’ onto the material world. While a purchased object may fail to satisfy a possessor, there are others just in reach, creating a state of perpetual potential for satisfaction [6]. According to these theories of the transcendent in the context of consumerism, objects can make for an addictive mix of idea and sensuous experience.

Borsato’s effort to transcend her feelings by using objects relates to the desperate and absurd lengths to which some solitary people will go to escape unease. There is a recent trend in marketing to invent comfort objects for the solitary individual. The renowned neurologist Oliver Sacks created an apt parable for the contemporary quest for synthetic intimacy when he told the story of a woman who couldn’t sustain touch [7]. Dr. Temple Grandin is an autistic university professor of animal science who invented humane methods for slaughtering cows. She noticed that squeezing cows in a tight blanket to give them needles had a soothing effect. Temple’s autism caused her extreme over-stimulation when touched, so she designed a squeezing contraption called the ‘hug machine’ to comfort herself [8]. Ads on TV feature pillows molded in the shape of a woman or man’s shoulders which inventors claim will help a person achieve a soothing night’s sleep. Single people can buy products such as the Outward Hound —strollers designed specifically to let you take your canine companion for walks in the park.

It makes sense that this new interest in artificial human companionship as commodity is linked to an increase in solitary lifestyles. Approximately 10% of Canadians lived alone according to the 2001 census, and many work alone at home via their computers [9]. It seems natural that people in this situation might experience a need for intimacy that they cannot satisfy in conventional ways, so commerce and art step forward to satisfy this need. Borsato’s work evokes the modern side effects of solitude and is in this sense a simple meditation on the increasingly solitary, yet mediated, character of contemporary experience.

The comfort object has particular significance for women in the popular imagination. Traditionally stereotyped as both more emotional and more interested in shopping than men, women are sometimes represented as weak and easily influenced by beauty and sensuousness. By presenting her accounts as photo-texts and testimonials—genres that connote both the public space of advertising and the contemporary art tradition of questioning the authority of received ideas—the works redefine the psychological explanation for why women seek comfort.

Borsato describes her experiments in the form of lush visual images, and first-person accounts of the works recall the ‘testimonial’ advertisement. A woman who explains how she had a need that a product fulfilled typifies this narrative. These stories follow the familiar pattern of conflict followed by resolution: “I don’t have time to shop after a long days work, so I kick back with the sweet taste of….” The artist mimics this demonstration through her texts. She constructs a typical female confessional narrative style through her allusions to the diary form. A traditional site of female confession, the diary is a place where women recount their innermost problems and dreams, and therefore has the same candid and intimate tone as the testimonial. The left-oriented layout is reminiscent of poetry and emotive phrases such as, “I was feeling lonely,” in Sleeping with Cake, recall the outpouring of personal experiences that is the stereotypical of the diary entry [10]. Moreover, the text is delicate and italicized, an aesthetic that recalls the natural slant of cursive handwriting that might fill a diary.

The bizarre character and dubious outcomes of Borsato’s experiments signal her skepticism toward stereotypes of the transcendent experience, and she shows this by casting herself in the negative stereotype of the hysterical woman. While everything works out well in the testimonial story (“I lost thirty pounds in five days!”), in reality, these desires sometimes mutate into undignified compulsions. This tendency is mythologized by the stories of women who eat whole tubs of ice cream in one sitting or devour fashion magazines like Cosmopolitan to discover how to get and keep a man. This woman-gone-wrong has lost control and unleashed her emotions. Nineteenth century heroines (like Flaubert’s unfortunate Madame Bovary) who met with disastrous consequences after giving in to all of their emotional and material wants are prototypes for the hysterical woman shopper [11]. Compulsion is central to the myth of the woman undone and the compulsive shopper, and Borsato’s neutral tone in her descriptions suggests unselfconsciousness—or automatic curiosity that is not unlike hysteria (she couldn’t help herself; the yogurt was just too good [12]). This abnormal and irrational characterization is paralleled in the focus on synesthesia, which is seen as an irrational neurological phenomenon that is associated with creativity and femininity [13]. The mixture of references to the stereotype of the hysterical woman and the testimonial suggest that Borsato is playing with the model of woman as full of confused desire.

As personal yet systematic mixtures of image and text, these works subvert the semiotic authority of the ‘public document,’ continuing the tradition of the socially-engaged photo-textual artwork. By invading media space and subverting its conventions, the photo-textual artwork simultaneously tells new stories and signals the absence of alternative points of view in conventional media. The photo-text in fine art has a distinct history that is linked to media criticism. It was born out of the billboard art movement of the 1980s, which often strove to put private political issues into the public by placing them in the competitive position of ad locations. Seminal works by Felix Gonzalez-Torres and Barbara Kruger exemplify this tendency [14]. Barbara Kruger appropriated the large, simple text overlaid on images of women of the women’s fashion magazine but replaced seductive and promising slogans with the red, white, and black of communist aesthetics and exhortations about power politics. We won’t play nature to your culture is just one example of her work that addressed women’s rights issues. Gonzalez-Torres’s Untitled shed light on the devastating consequences of theAIDS crisis for the intimate lives of gay men through the minimalist poetics of an uninhabited bed.

By working in the tradition of the intervention, an artistic genre that infiltrates media space and uses similar strategies as those of the photo-textual tradition, these works undermine authority in another way; the creation of a break in the order of life is the definition of the intervention, a genre which grew from the performance art tradition and sometimes is concerned with critiquing materialist values. The ephemeral gesture (eg. sewing a flower in a piece of store clothing that the artist and an audience may never see in the piece Embroidery Bandit ) follows in this tradition of the artistic intervention. Common to both these mediums is a concern for questioning the boundaries between art and life. The text accompanying her rolling on the grass reveals that Borsato is concerned with this issue: “I was trying to think of new ways to engage myself with the city, and work in a space between art and life” [15]. A performance act can sometimes be mistaken for a natural act, and a photo-text can be confused with an advertisement. Borsato takes this ambiguity to a new place by locating these works in between photography and performance [16]. Since no audience witnesses her interventions, they are not performance—traditionally defined as an ephemeral act that occurs ‘live’ or in real time [17]. They are also not traditional photography, in the sense that they do not document an event as ‘real,’ or as carrying meaning outside the relationship to the idea of the performance. The images are often fragmented or capture a possibly staged action. Patrice Loubier calls this type of intervention ‘furtive,’ meaning that it plays with the idea of invisibility and of integrating art into life [18]. The discrete intervention is an art of camouflage because it appropriates the conventions of another genre for the purpose of subversion.

Both subversive and sincere, these works demonstrate an ironic attitude toward the potential of the comfort object [19]. Part rejection and part embrace, they recall McCracken’s theory about the relationship between the buyer and the ‘bridge good’ that fills him/her with desire [20]. Rather than condemn consumers for needing this comfort, McCracken accepts it as natural and human. Loubier considers it an example of a very practical contemporary spirit in a consumer culture context [21]. Given that participation in consumption and advertising’s seductions is unavoidable, buyers necessarily linger between an attitude of detached criticism and excessive indulgence.

In addition to their enjoyable conceptual acrobatics, subversions of feminine stereotypes, and positioning in the history of contemporary performance, the works in How to Eat Light provide poignant parables for the elusive character of imagination and desire. As Mark Kingwell eloquently expressed in a recent article on the American dream, “the dream is, in a familiar paradox of human desire, both demanded immediately and deferred constantly” [22]. Kingwell means that desire for something out of reach only seems reasonable if it seems attainable despite not being in reach. This simple truth is evident in the manic attitude that characterizes the difficult relationship that some consumers have with their seductive habit. They linger in an imaginative state between hunger and satisfaction. The popularity of reality TV as entertainment that provides an illusion of eroding distinction between reality and representation is an imaginative experience [23]. Viewers are titillated by the possibility that the characters are real and that they could take their place.

Even when Borsato is unraveling the psychology of an act like sitting in a light-filled room for healing, she still weaves compelling images and stories that recreate the magic of transcendent experience. The smears of warm orange cement and cerulean sky, approached by a tentative and delicate hand inCaressing the View, are undeniably moving. Their poignancy is not only in the recognition of the fragility and ephemerality of visual beauty, but also of a will to believe in such an innocent experience—an attitude that is betrayed by the uncharacteristically simple caption, “I caressed the view.” How to Eat Lightsimultaneously upholds and undresses aesthetic and semiotic authority in order to paint a picture of a compromised contemporary aesthetic experience.

1. The artist raised this issue in an interview about the show at Occurrence. Isa and Zoe Tousignant, “Mouth Piece,“ Hour, September 8, 2005. Available from [link]. Accessed January 22, 2006.
2. Richard E. Cytowic, “Synesthesia: Phenomenology And Neuropsychology A Review of Current Knowledge,” Psyche: an Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Consciousness, 2 no.10 (July 1995). Available from [link] May 22, 2006.
3.  Ibid., 2.1-2.11.
4. Monroe C. Beardsley, “Aesthetic Experience Regained,” The Aesthetic Point of View, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982), p. 77 92.
5. Naomi Klein identifies the transcendent character of contemporary corporations’ product branding strategies particularly in relation to the idea that productsattempt to embody a ‘lifestyle’ or set of values. Naomi Klein, No Logo, (New York: Picador, 1999), pp. 22-3.
6. Grant McCracken, “The Evocative Power of Things: Consumer Goods and the Preservation of Hopes and Ideals,” in Culture and Consumption: New Approaches to the Symbolic Character of Consumer Goods and Activities, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988), p. 106.
7. Oliver Sacks, An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales, (New York: Vintage Books, 1996).
8. Temple Grandin, “Calming Effects of Deep Touch Pressure in Patients with Autistic Disorder, College Students, and Animals,” Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychopharmacology 2 no.1 (1992). Available from [link]. Accessed May 4, 2006.
9. “2001 Census: Families and Households Profile,” Statistics Canada, (2001). Available from [link]. Accessed May 10, 2006.
10. Kim Simon, “Diane Borsato: Touching Science,” Gallery TPW, 2004. Available from . Accessed October 13, 2005.
11. Rita Felski, “Imagined Pleasures: The Erotics and Aesthetics of Consumption,” in The Gendre of Modernity, (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1995), p. 63.
12.  Ibid., p. 65.
13. Cytowic, 2.5.
14. Catherine Gudis, Ed, A Forest of Signs: Art in the Crisis of Representation (Los Angeles: Museum of Contemporary Art, 1989), p. 41.
15. Diane Borsato, Image List. CD Dossier. 2006.
16. Martha Langford discusses the significance of this choice in terms of creating an artwork of ‘pure idea.’ Martha Langford, Ed., Image & ImaginationLe Mois de la Photo à Montréal, (Montréal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2005), p. 34.
17. France Choinière and Michèle Thériault, Eds, Point & shoot: Performance and photography, (Montréal : Éditions Dazibao, 2005), p. 61.
18. Patrice Loubier, “Un Art à fleur de réel,” INTER (Canada) no.81 (Spring 2002), p. 13.
19. Ibid. 
20. McCracken, p. 113.
21. Loubier, p. 13.
22. Mark Kingwell, “The American Gigantic,” The Walrus, 3 no. 5 (June 2006), p. 65.
23. Choinière and Thériault, p. 78.