Accept No Substitutes: “Placebo” by Roxy Paine


Photo courtesy of Kiku Obata

*This article is the second post of a two part series about Roxy Paine’s “Placebo”

At the end of her beautiful essay Molly Moog mentioned how Placebo by Roxy Paine raises contradictions. She wrote, “They expose the paradoxical line between art and nature.” And that’s where I’d like to begin.  

Placebo is a brainteaser of an artwork, a stainless steel tree set in a park, the sight of which is part appealing, part appalling. Through its exposure of ambiguities between art and nature it leads us to play a game, questioning what criteria we want when we call something ‘natural.’

But let’s first clarify definitions. What is the purpose of a placebo? The dictionary lists three ways to frame it: “to reinforce a patient’s expectation to get well.” And “to test the effectiveness of a medicinal drug.” And “Something of no intrinsic remedial value that is used to appease or reassure another.”(i) Collaging them all together, a general definition could be “something that one group substitutes clandestinely for another substance, to achieve a benefit, mainly of reassurance, for another group.”

A placebo tests its own efficacy as well as that of the reagent. But the relationships between placebo and active ingredient, between testers and those tested upon, are porous and can interchange. For instance, the placebo is selected because it is functionally neutral but with some sleight of hand – or rather, mind – those unaware of the substitution will experience some of the benefits offered by the “real thing.” And if the placebo doesn’t work, they can become those who now know of the substitution.

Most often placebos are benign substitutions for potentially powerful drugs. What is Placebo a placebo for? An obvious possibility is: a natural tree. Is the artist trying to have his artwork accepted as a tree? Is it a test to see what is sufficient for a tree-ness? A game: how is it a tree; how is it not a tree? But, if he wanted to, he could have slipped in an artwork molded into a perfect facsimile of a tree. With technology these days, the trompe l’oeil (fool-the-eye) factor could have been nearly perfect. Had he made a fake tree look just like a real tree, our discovery of that deception would have been the end of the story.

But instead Paine went in a different direction and couldn’t have made this object more different from a natural tree- the shiny metallic surface just can’t be overlooked. Oh yes, he added the realistic detail of tree fungi! But going to the extent of that detail, but not adding the detail of, say, a leaf or two only emphasizes the illusion of the work. Although permanently suspended in skeletal state, even in the wintertime, when all the deciduous trees have dropped their leaves, it won’t blend in. Its shiny and polished shiny trunk, its fabricated limbs: not even close. Plus, he titled it Placebo!

The artist couldn’t have gone to greater lengths to make it clear, although his piece is very like a tree in form scale and context, it is not a real tree. And really, we never thought it was! We might enjoy the vacillating tree/not tree experience, but at the same time, we resist it. We already always know that we are playing a game. That tree can never be neutral – whereas placebo is neutral and blind.‘Placebo’ in this case could only be an oxymoron because it is unanimously known to not be a real tree. The title could only be meant ironically.

Unless. Unless we answer that the tree is a placebo not for nature but for art. This gets more complex. When we tried to fit Placebo into nature as ‘tree’ we ended up viewing it more and more as art. But imagine the comparison not between the treeness of Placebo to other trees but the artfulness of Placebo to the artifice of “nature.” Placebo fails as a placebo only if we try to bend this artwork into nature. But it hasn’t failed when we recognize the placebo as a substation not for nature but for art. We are testing to see if it can be accepted because of its artifice.

Let me clarify. Placebo is situated in Forest Park, surrounded by trees and grass. A wild setting would be more natural but far less comfortable, nontraversable, not conducive to joggers. So we have no trouble accepting the manicured knolls as an uncultivated habitat as we mow, clip, and spread them with chemicals. In fact we don’t even perceive them as a substitution for the mud and dirt and weeds of an actual natural environment.

We even accept grass as indigenous! But Placebo just went too far. With its reflective material – and its self –reflective name –it showed itself as art and gave the game away.

This takes us away from the match game we played at first: metal tree = natural tree. It makes us regard context. Placebo turns the question around, away from itself, to question the naturalness of the planted trees. Looking around, we realize these trees are not indigenous to this place. Well, even if a few are, they are all completely domesticated.

We suddenly see it. All these trees and the park itself are placebo. We are surrounded by art functioning, placebo-like, for nature. They have been slipped in, part of our built world but appearing to be a natural landscape, to grant us that feeling that we can get away from the human constructions, a respite from civilization and its discontents and into something more genuine. A return to nature, the peace and ease of a verdant world.

In every use of “placebo” two realities are created. One is that of believers. The other is that of those in the know, those privy to the substitution. Placebo places us all in the privy situation. The artist wants us to be in this position. Not the deceived audience but the enlightened audience. He wants the half-life of the placebo effect, the belief in the sameness of Placebo and nature, to be very short, if at all. Placebo does its best to augment our incredulity, which anyway was almost immediate. It situates us on the side of knowing. We try to imagine ourselves (back) in the believer state of mind. But we’ve seen the ‘man behind the curtain’ and can’t undo that knowledge.

Through this art play we find that we had actually been in the unaware group. And with that knowledge comes a dawning suspicion. We wonder: what else have we missed? Can any placebo placate forever?

Researchers emphasize the positive side of placebos. That, although placebos are “based on false information,” nevertheless “their use in the correct place is to be encouraged.”(ii) They are a temporary measure, an expediency. A bridge to a better situation.

But currently, all kinds of artificialities are being substituted under the name ‘natural,’ and generally in processes that seem out of our control. How much technology do we want in our nature? Genetically modified foods for instance: it looks like a tomato but might trigger fish allergies. What is “unadulterated?” How much can be altered before we protest that the original is gone?  Like that riddle: a boat with 100 passengers travels around the world and at every port, something on it is removed and replaced- the first port all the masts are changed, the next the hull, and so on. By the time the ship returns nothing on it is the original. Have the passengers returned on the same ship that left the port? Is there a moment when the ship is no longer itself?

has both quick-acting and time-release effects. Its slick surface and its title take us directly to the end game – we start at the point where we know it’s not the real thing. Through its artifice it calls into question other substitutions. This lets us play another game – seeing everything is both real and not quite so. How do we define nature and real? Placebo demonstrates that everything is relational. Our categories of “real” and “placebo” depend on what else is in the group.

Ultimately, we test our own limits and desires. How much ‘real’ do we want? Where do we want something natural and when is artifice preferred? It’s the game we play unconsciously with all art the interplay between illusionism and being a thing in itself.

Artworks test categories, they cross boundaries, expose ideology. With works of art we are all put in the position of those in the know.  Placebo is an invitation to play – and playing cuts through categories and rearranges the world.

(ii) Archie, Cochrane, A.L.: Effectiveness and Efficiency: Random Reflections on Health Services. The Nuffield Provincial Hospitals Trust 1972, p 31. Cited in Wikipedia