CATARACT 2 February – 23 March 2019
Electric Light (facts/ figures/anna schwartz gallery upstairs) 2 February – 2 March 2019
By Amelia Winata
The two current exhibitions from Melbourne-based Daniel von Sturmer at Anna Schwartz Gallery are billed as discrete offerings, a fact underscored by the exhibitions' separate closing dates. CATARACT, on the gallery's ground floor, is a video work comprised of 81 small television screens that have been arranged in a grid formation, nine high and nine across. Upstairs is Electric Light, an incarnation of an older work that was originally shown at Collingwood's Bus Projects in 2017. However, this work is not identical to that shown at Bus. It is necessarily site specific because the light projection at the heart of Electric Light is programmed to highlight particular fixtures in the gallery such as power sockets and fire sprinklers. Despite the overly conscious isolated billing of the two works, CATARACT and Electric Light share von Sturmer's ongoing preoccupation with the human-shaped environment, explored by the creation of works that act as artificial environs within themselves.
CATARACT is a precisely executed work that plays short clips of everyday activities and actions montaged across the large upright surface of a screened wall. The scenes, saturated with colour, last only a few seconds, vanishing shortly after appearing. In one of the clips, a rubber band quickly unfurls from a tightly wound formation; in another, a foot pads down into the soft sand of a shoreline; and, in a third, a blob of blue ink soaks quickly into a papery surface. Each scene quickly plays out, sometimes on more than one screen at any one time, before switching over to the next scene that we have already seen on a different screen. The gridded layout shrouds a chaos produced as a result of the random play order and repetition of these scenes. Taken individually, the everyday footage might offer a clichéd "respite" from the "monotony" of daily life. However, when taken as a single installation, with all 81 screens playing short, sharp scenes repeatedly but with seemingly little order, the effect is to agitate the viewer. Barely able to focus on the work as a whole, they struggle to grasp even the fragmentary scenes that last for but a few seconds. The result of the simultaneous order and chaos in CATARACT is unsettling.
In her 1979 essay 'Grids', Rosalind Krauss argued that the appearance of the grid in 20th-century art had become an "emblem of modernity". This rigid formation, as exemplified by the likes of Piet Mondrian, Agnes Martin and Robert Ryman, was able to uphold conflict by way of its "bivalent" nature—simultaneously transparent and opaque, vertical and horizontal, centrifugal (a tendency to shift towards the centre) and centripetal (a tendency to shift away from the centre), flowing and stagnant. The grid, she argued, was the ultimate breeding ground for what she called "myth", a particular state where contradictions or tensions could coexist. "The function of the myth", Krauss writes, "is to allow both views to be held in some kind of para-logical suspension". Though there are many moments of farfetchedness in Krauss's essay, she convincingly argued that the visual trope of the grid was representative of an uneasy and contradictory transition into modernity well underway in the 20th century. In a moment of absolute transition, artists turned to the grid to reject historical narrative and to create worlds where a sense of order came from chaos. Where they could have it all.
Von Sturmer's grid is a contemporary extension of its modernist counterpart. He has produced a work typical of a new cohort of artists working specifically within the post-9/11 era of video art, concerned as it is with thematics of surveillance, hyper-consumption and screen culture. While Krauss discusses the grid in terms of its ability to uphold the tension between religion and science and, therefore, between tradition and modernity, the "contradiction" presented by von Sturmer is that between a state of calm and a state of anxiety. In this sense, he captures a paradox that characterises 21st-century late capitalism. Specifically, the paradox of being overworked and always stimulated in spite of technology that has promised to ease the burden of modern life. The mundane daily activities played out on the screens of von Sturmer's televisions are in plain sight, yet each clip must also compete with the eighty others it is playing simultaneously against. Not to mention the domineering, monolithic structure that the body of screens creates.
In recent years, contemporary artists have used the grid as a critical structure for the display of the moving image. South African artist Candice Breitz (also represented by Anna Schwartz) regularly produces multi-channel video works in a similar installation. For Australian audiences, Breitz's Queen (a Portrait of Madonna), 2005, held in MONA's Hobart collection, might come to mind as an archetypal video "grid work". But in contrast with von Sturmer's CATARACT, it is easier to watch. A heart-warming and humorous work of art, Queen presents the viewer with thirty individuals, each confined to their own screen, who are singing along to an array of Madonna hits, only with no backing track. The performers dance and sway to the songs (that they listen to through an earpiece) and confidently sing directly at the camera. The viewer, however, is also somewhat uncomfortable viewing the work. Many of the amateur performers are off-tune and seem unfairly subjected to the gaze of the camera person, the artist and us the viewers. The effect is not unlike the audition round of prime-time reality television shows such as Australian Idol where overly confident yet undertalented ordinary people offer entertainment to the general public. Yet another—though vastly different—video grid formation is Kahled Sabsabi's 70,000 Veils 2014, a 100-channel video installation comprised of 30,000 everyday images. They were photographed by Sabsabi over the course of three years and eventually converted into 3-D clips, each "veiled" with the same almost fluorescent green overlay that evokes the colours created by cracked screens and an almost alien sense of removal from reality. Sabsabi's "veils" do not block out in the traditional sense of the word. Instead, the 3-D effect of the work allows the viewer to experience virtual depth. While Krauss discussed the ability to look at and through the grid, she nonetheless described a flat image. Sabsabi, on the other hand, heightens a sense of depth by engaging the third dimension. I don't mean to conflate von Sturmer, Breitz and Sabsabi's works, but to point to an identifiable tendency in contemporary video art to employ the grid as a device that references the contradictions of daily existence.
For CATARACT, the tension between the micro and macro might have influenced von Sturmer's decision to install the work close to the entrance of the gallery, facing towards the back of the room so that the viewer can witness it from a considerable distance. From here, the screens become indistinct pixels of clashing colours. With colour flicking on and off at a fast pace, the emphasis quickly shifts from content to structure: to once again make reference to Krauss, the centripetal gives over to the centrifugal. Realism gives over to abstraction. Rather than the depiction of daily actions that are visible up close, at a distance von Sturmer presents a blur of abstracted shapes and movements as if each screen mimics an individual digital pixel's relation to the greater whole to which it belongs, i.e., the picture that it forms a part of. The suggestion is one of a Russian doll of parts and wholes: the pixel a part of the screen; the screen a part of the installation; the installation a part of the gallery; the gallery a part of the architecture, etc. By declaring the screen's status as a building block of a potentially infinite larger whole outside the installation itself, von Sturmer's screens become an index of the universe at large.
Upstairs, von Sturmer's Electric Light (facts/ figures/anna schwartz gallery upstairs), 2019, is a relief to the intense retinal over-stimulus of Cataract. Stationed in the corner of the gallery is a lone, motorised head-profile light (not dissimilar to the lighting used in stage productions) that swivels on its base and projects various shapes on to the surfaces of the gallery, including the ceiling, floor and an artificial wall installed at the far end of the gallery. There is a relationship to the downstairs installation insofar as both consider the experience of human-made space, though there is a holism to Electric Light that CATARACT does not have. Considering the two installations as separate but interconnected, I am reminded of the film Chunking Express, 1994, from Wong Kar-wai, a film split into two separate narratives about two policemen shown one after the other but set in Hong Kong and around the same neighbourhood, including a diner that both protagonists frequent, though they are never seen in the others half of the film. Despite the similar settings, one storyline is decidedly noir while the other takes on a more classical romance narrative. The relationship to site is important to both CATARACT and Electric Light, though the latter is dependent on it while the former is enhanced by it.
Alone in the large gallery with the robot-like light, it was impossible for me not to anthropomorphise this piece of electrical gear. Electric Light, to my mind, centres on the profile-light as protagonist; it reminds me of a small child who, suddenly aware of the interconnection between themselves and the world around them, takes pleasure in pointing out each and every detail of their milieu. With its distinctive robotic noises, the light emphasises the space through a series of choreographed acrobatics that are a delicate mixture of poetics and fact. For instance, at one particular point in a 25-second sequence, the light creates a white frame around a pane of window glass (an allusion to the grid?) before morphing into a square that travels up the wall and moves along the ceiling, shifting with short and sharp movements before returning to another window pane, morphing to once again frame the glass's shape, before shifting down the wall now as a hollow rectangle that finally flips and falls further down the wall. At another point, the profile light floods each power socket in the room in a solid, white rectangle, and then seemingly self-consciously highlights the very power socket it is plugged into before finally spinning 180 degrees to project a solid circle onto the floor directly in front of it. The interaction between self and environment is mimicked by the diminutive robotic lamp that points out all manner of details though the immaterial medium of light.
There are obvious parallels to be drawn between Electric Light and the work of the Bauhaus artists. In particular, we might create a parallel with Ludwig Hirschfeld Mack who produced the Farbenlichtspiele apparatus in the early part of the 20th century, a machine that created a series of colourful, layered light projections that appeared to dance across the surface they were presented upon. The difference though is that Electric Light projects only a single morphing shape that is white and therefore colourless, while the Farbenlichtspiele were reliant upon the relationship between projected shapes and the harmony of the various colours of each shape. In other words, the holism of von Sturmer's work highlights the greater spaces it inhabits, while the atomism of the Farbenlichtspiele created small self-standing microcosms. Despite this, von Sturmer undoubtedly exploits the utopian element of light that Hirschfeld Mack originally sought to achieve in the 1920s to imagine an alternative world. It has often been said that the Bauhäuslers used technology to produce utopias in order to tolerate the grave reality of the times: Nazism and the impending world war. Perhaps with Electric Light von Sturmer presents new utopian visions, if only by way of selecting and augmenting particular pre-existing spaces, in order to tolerate the precarious global socio-political situation we currently find ourselves in.
It is ironic that downstairs CATARACT speaks of the world around it (and so us), but the ultimate effect of the grid of screens is to reduce the short narrative actions depicted on each television to an experience of alienation, while upstairs it is a machine that creates a human experience of the environment. The all too common clichés of utopias and dystopias are presented though somehow flipped on their head, so that the images we most associate with daily life offer us the least comfort.
Amelia Winata is a Melbourne-based arts writer and PhD candidate in Art History at the University of Melbourne.
Title image: DANIEL VON STURMER, CATARACT, 2019, 81 screen installation, 300 x 510 x 40 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Anna Schwartz Gallery. Photograph: Zan Wimberley)