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Evocative objects, strange selves

Lizzie Muller at Experimenta’s Vanishing Point

Minim++, Tool’s Life, 2001 courtesy the artist Minim++, Tool’s Life, 2001 courtesy the artist
At the heart of the poetics of technological art is a fascination with the line between things that live and things that don’t, the interaction between beings and objects, between man and man-made. Things that confuse this boundary, quintessentially the computer, are described by Sherry Turkle as “evocative objects”, which lead us to reframe our assumptions about ourselves and our creations. Contemporary new media art’s aesthetic inheritance of the evocative object has evolved through many different traditions of spectacle including the magic show and the Wonder Chambers of the past, which relished the ingenuity of the artificial as well as the prodigies and freaks of nature.

It was a pleasure to see this rich vein of techno-cultural aesthetics explored so ambitiously in Experimenta’s Vanishing Point exhibition. It was particularly satisfying in light of the too-oft-repeated claims that new media art lacks “poetry”, which could be heard over and over again in the lecture halls of the Vital Signs conference taking place up the road at ACMI. Vanishing Point not only showed that there was a distinctive poetics to new media art, but that there is a wealth of subtle and beautiful work being produced in this field. As with the historical spectacles to which it claims inheritance, Vanishing Point was popular with the crowd. Huge visitor numbers and delighted faces were testament to the appeal of this work: as challenging as any form of contemporary art—but with happier audiences.

William Kentridge’s Journey to the Moon (South Africa, 2003) set many of the thematic coordinates for this exploration of the ground beyond the vanishing point. In part an homage to moving picture pioneers such as George Méliès, the film merges live action of Kentridge himself in his studio creating work with hand drawn animation. It revels in the capacity of moving image technology to augment reality (perhaps even to fool us that men have landed on the moon). He uses the silhouette—the form of an object reduced to its essence and ready for imaginative repurposing—to release the alternate potential of everyday things. A coffee pot blasts off into the cosmos, a cup becomes a telescope, binoculars and then a magnifying glass. Kentridge explores the power of cameras and other optical technologies to reveal and document new versions of the world, and places them alongside other systems of knowing and representing reality such as maps and star charts.

Despite all advances in optical technology, the simple shadow and reflection remain powerfully arresting visual phenomena. Both are ways of seeing altered, dematerialised, essentially virtual manifestations of the real. Shadows and reflections symbolise the other side of reality: the magical and the subconscious. In Minim++’s Tool’s Life (Japan, 2001), stark stainless steel objects cast crisp shadows on a white table top. When touched these cold, solid objects release alternative shadows—a whisk becomes a birdcage and rabbits jump out of tea-cups. Minim++ reveal the totemic and mutable qualities of objects through interactive technologies as Kentridge does through film and animation.

Luke Jerram’s Retinal Memory Volume (UK, 1997), a work of almost classic status, is the quintessential version of the dematerialisation of the object. In this piece we do not see a thing at all, but the manufactured perception of a thing. In a darkened booth three flashes of light imprint the image of a chair directly on to the retina of the observer. The phantom chair appears with a strange luminous tangibility in empty space. Jerram turns our attention on the mechanisms by which we see and make sense of our vision. Our own perceptual structures are revealed as a kind of optical technology—the observer as proto-camera.

In Shaun Gladwell’s Pataphysical Man (Australia 2005), the human form itself, its construction and reconstruction through human invention, becomes the focus. A video of a break-dancer spinning on his head is inverted so he seems to be spinning from the ceiling. His splayed form echoes those previous theoretical superheroes Vitruvian Man and Modular Man. The work is a study of the physical forces that govern our embodied existence, and our defiance of them through physical feats and mechanical ingenuity. Through our miraculous optical machines we can easily slow down time and invert space, but by doing so Gladwell reveals and celebrates the concrete physicality of the living body in its labours, struggles and triumphs.

Perhaps the most effective piece in the show was one that put the audience themselves directly within the work and exploited the unique capacity of new media to represent in the same time and space the image of the perceiver perceiving. In Alex Davies’ Dislocation (Australia 2005), 4 small mounted monitors are set back in one wall of an enclosed installation space. You need to approach them closely to see what they are showing. It takes a moment to realise that what you can see is your own back, and those of your neighbours peering at the adjacent monitors. The screen flickers slightly, as if there is a minor disruption in transmission, and someone else enters the gallery, nearer to the camera, talking on a mobile phone. The sense of their presence behind you is spine-tinglingly palpable, as is the illicit feeling that you are eavesdropping on their conversation. But glance over your shoulder and you find the room is empty. The other presence was a phantom, a ghost in the machine. I watched people dissolve in delight over and over again, drag in unsuspecting companions and relish the moment of being duped. Even after this moment of realisation, the images of the ghostly others occasionally behaving in inappropriate ways remains compelling. The small audience shivers at each new arrival like ouija board conspirators.

Within the deceptively simple trick is a wealth of complex affects: delight and disturbance, a heightened sense of our physical and psychological relationships to others and an awareness of the captivating rhetoric of our own images. As the mirror image is a metaphor for self, the mediated reflection of the video image is a metaphor for a contemporary technologised self. We are transfixed by images of ourselves, but particularly by images of ourselves made strange. This is at the root of the new media obsession with mechanical transformation. What we are experiencing in the moment of destabilisation brought on by a perceptual trick is a heightened awareness, which lingers after the event, of what it means to be that mysterious psychophysical structure: a human being in the world.

Experimenta, Vanishing Point, curators Liz Hughes & Emma McRae, various venues, Melbourne, Sept 1-30,

RealTime issue #70 Dec-Jan 2005 pg. 23

© Lizzie Muller; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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