New landscapes, new thinking

Dan Edwards

Two screen-based works recently exhibited at Sydney’s Artspace evoke the notion of new, technological landscapes in 21st century art. Some way into John Conomos’ video work Aura, the artist observes in voiceover: “Artificial infinities exist everywhere, as nature recedes only to be replaced by a technological landscape.” Across the gallery, East Art Map (2003-04), a CD-ROM by Slovenian artists’ group IRWIN, constructs a 3-dimensional time-space landscape through which the user can journey and discover the fragmented history of post-war Eastern European art.

Aura opens with a series of indistinct, overlapping images. Shimmering strings on musical instruments, glossy wood panelling and hands vibrating over fretboards merge, gradually cross-fading to a green landscape of rolling hills. Meanwhile, the voice-over sketches 2 traditions of the sublime in Western thought. One is vaguely described as nostalgic, in which the subject strives to achieve a communion with nature. The other is a Kantian tradition, in which the subject moves to an awareness of an ‘infinite beyond’ through aesthetic experience; an apprehension without comprehension of an immense, unknowable force that undermines any notion of a stable order.

As Aura progresses, we move through an ever shifting series of landscapes: calm green pastoral scenes, trees swaying on dark horizons and the ethereal, pockmarked surfaces of planets seen from space. Faces sometimes appear superimposed over these images. We also see musicians in a studio recording Robert Lloyd’s string ensemble score, and Conomos standing at a cliff railing, his hands raised in wonder or dismay. The constant movement between images of nature and humankind’s apprehension of these scenes—through perception and the creation of art—invokes the aesthetic experience central to Kantian notions of the sublime.

As the voiceover notes, however, in the modern era there are critics who disavow any notion of the sublime. But Aura suggests that a postmodern technological sublime might function as a way of thinking about a technologised future that keeps that future open and permeable, pointing towards a realm of infinite possibilities.

While the concept is rife with potential, it’s difficult to discern exactly what Conomos means when he speaks of a postmodern technological sublime. Does he mean that a potential sense of the sublime lies in our experience of the technology itself? Or might it emerge from the contemplation of endless possibilities offered by virtual worlds? The images of Aura suggest otherwise, since the only landscapes we see—from tree-covered hills to planetary surfaces—are from the natural, physical world. However, these landscapes are all mediated by technology; namely video cameras and satellites in space. The silent planets hovering in the immensity of space certainly inspire a sense of awe and wonder, but it is debatable whether Kant’s sublime, with its religious implications, is the most useful concept for exploring our reaction to these images or our relationship to the technology that makes them possible.

On the other side of the gallery IRWIN’s CD-ROM East Art Map directly employs a technological landscape to raise questions of a more material nature. The work attempts to bring together the fragmented histories of Eastern European art during the post-war era of Soviet domination. The totalitarian nature of the Eastern Bloc states precluded the emergence of a pan-national Eastern European artistic consciousness, as national borders were rigorously enforced and each government singled out certain artists and movements for support, while suppressing others.

The CD-ROM opens with a statement that constitutes the work’s raison-d’être: “History is not given—it has to be constructed.” A series of abstract shapes come together, unfold and are reconfigured. When clicked on, they dissolve into a 3-dimensional ‘map’ comprising spheres hanging in space, some linked by red lines (“inter-relations”), others by blue (“development lines of specific issues”). With the computer’s arrow keys, the user enters this virtual space and different time-space sectors are identified via labels appearing at the top of the screen, such as “Yugoslavia, Romania, 1947-1973.” Some of the spheres glow brightly when passed over; if the user clicks on these they access a particular artist’s biography and an illustration of one or more works. A set of important critics from each time and place also accompanies every sector.

In its endless parade of informational fragments, East Art Map provokes a certain anxiety in the user. There is too much information here, but at the same time each fragment feels inadequate to account for the life and work of the individual artists. As a research tool, I imagine it works best as a springboard for further investigations, but as an aesthetic experience it serves to reveal the complex processes involved in the construction of History.

There is the sense of an infinite number of stories, artists, movements and works that can never be grasped as a totality, implying a history of Eastern European art that can be imagined, but never constituted as a whole. East Art Map creates, but deliberately fails to satisfy, the desire for historical coherence, revealing History to be a discursive act involving the imposition of narrative over a disparate but related set of experiences, legends and objects. In the West, we have enough established, generally recognised ‘grand narratives’ to give an illusion of historical coherence to our past. East Art Map reveals the absence of such narratives in Eastern Europe, but in doing so points towards a different kind of historical understanding, one that sees history as a 3-dimentional, constantly shifting set of interrelations and possibilities. As well as providing insight into the little known art world of Eastern Europe, the work employs the interactivity and multiple pathways of the CD-ROM to forge a fascinating technological landscape that re-configures positivist mappings.

Aura, writer/director John Conomos, music Robert Lloyd, Oct 7-30; East Art Map, IRWIN, Oct 7-29 Artspace, Sydney

RealTime issue #64 Dec-Jan 2004 pg. 32

© Dan Edwards; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 2004
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