Space odysseys: light visions

Adam Geczy

Luc Courchesne, The Visitor: Living by Number, 2001

Luc Courchesne, The Visitor: Living by Number, 2001

Luc Courchesne, The Visitor: Living by Number, 2001

You are averse to entering large dark corridors—inhibition dictates it. You slowly move forward, before your eyes adjust, into what premonition has told you to distrust. It is an annoying sensation, this fear, since common sense tells you that the experience is not harmful. You are gripped by the suddenness of this disorientation in a space that is not the world: a heavy cloak of warm darkness, a mouth whose teeth are slivers of light. As you approach them, they approach you, these figures whose shape and luminosity appear as you have always imagined ghosts to be. You move closer to a man who gazes out with an emotionless but inquisitive stare, and he retreats; at the end of the corridor a girl surges from the darkness, made more from air and light than from flesh and bone. They are communicating with you in an impossible mixture of intimacy and callousness. You do not know whether it is out of some unspoken need that these remote worlds have come to visit you, or whether you, for a moment more vulnerable, have called on them for help.

And leaving Gary Hill’s Tall Ships (1992) is very much like being woken from a hypnotic spell, recurring in residues and flashes. It is technological art at its very finest, for it does not call attention to itself as technology, does not play a game of cleverness with the viewer, does not make the viewer feel like a Luddite or in need of updating, does not try to initiate the viewer into some new maxi-digi-cyber-techno-syntax. If it takes up something new in our eyes, it is more in its forms; its concerns are perennial. Hill’s pale blue figures, the “ships”, though mute, speak to us before we realise that they have, because they speak to us about the condition of the purgatorial span between birth and death, and the feeling that most of us have that there is something more to material life, though we are at a loss to say what it is. These ships are mirrors and they are gods, making us feel both more secure, and more lost.

It is this depth rather than the puerile lust for hyper-technology that makes Space Odysseys: Sensation and Immersion profound, absorbing—and touching. If we are looking for poignancy without sentimentality, technology is not habitually the first place we will turn. Speaking generally, too many bad experiences have warned the average art-goer off art associated with technology, and rightly so, as the abuses of video art, as well as other so-called new media, are now more associated with sensory solecisms than stimulation. Yet this is one of the most inviting and, whoops, enjoyable exhibitions of contemporary art that I can remember.

It is curious to see the word “immersion” in the title for it immediately evokes its antonyms in the 20th century canon, associated with Duchamp and Minimalism: alienation and theatricality. It is curious because technological art, with its dark rooms and dramatic build-ups, is among the most stagy; not to mention everything we have been told about the alienating effects of technology. In the case of one of the 2 non-technological works, Bruce Nauman’s Triangle Room (1978-80), made in the name of unease, you are left wondering—immersed—as to the very source of alienation. It plays negative shrine to James Turrell’s positive one, an exercise in visual stealth. The first moments of being in the chamber for Turrell’s Between the Seen, with its 2 dull spots flanking a green oblong, can be spent waiting for something to happen. Nothing changes, and stepping closer to the green reveals it as a void; you stand at its raised edge with a calm feeling of having touched nothingness.

The larger claims, if any, of the exhibition were not clear to me, although Victoria Lynn in her introduction to the catalogue cites Cocteau’s film Orpheus, characterising the viewer’s role in the exhibition as an Orphic passage into rich and different spaces. The suggestion is that we, the viewers, are encouraged to become poetic beings who, out of duty to our wish to seek more than mundanities, descend into absorptive unknowns (although Orpheus went to hell to retrieve Eurydice and was subsequently torn to pieces, we thankfully remain intact).

In addition to its concerns for new spaces and dimensions caused by light, it was perhaps an effort to avoid (or dodge) recent dogmas about alienation and technological over-determination that led to the inclusion of László Moholy-Nagy’s Light Space Modulator. For it reminds us that new media is not necessarily all that new. His highly abstract black-and-white film is of a piece with the multi-disciplinary experiments of artists and designers at the Bauhaus, where he also taught.

There is a very new and active encouragement of collaboration in the Bauhaus, extending beyond architecture, and distinct from previous epochs, because the collaboration is between equals. David Hanes and Joyce Hinterding, artists with long and separate careers, have produced The Blinds and the Shutters, a 4-channel video and sound piece, taking up the entire room. On facing walls are alternately large topographic projections in black-and-white, and colour landscapes. The most frontal projection, surface opposite the entry, depicts a classic Modernist style house in the midst of a typical Australian landscape encircled by objects belonging to its interior: a blanket, cushions, a billowing white shirt. It carries a similar semantic obliqueness to the work by Moholy-Nagy but, again, not a negative sense, as you do not straight away feel that you have missed the point. Calm and expansive, the work is a conundrum whose sensuous qualities suffice.

In Lynette Wallworth’s Hold Vessel #1 and Hold Vessel #2, the viewer is asked to take one of the frosted glass bowls from the entry to be used as a visual receptacle for the 3 constantly changing visual mutations and gyrations projected from the ceiling. Most unusually, the viewer is given a device for viewing, a bowl, making him or her an essential component in receiving the luscious colours and designs, apparently inspired from sea-life. To soft, non-descript sounds, the images swell and mutate on the concave or convex surface in your hands. Here the viewer is not put into the role of passively experiencing, but of capturing.

Space Odysseys: Sensation and Immersion, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, August 18 – October 21; ACMI (Australian Centre for the Moving Image), Melbourne, 2002. Luc Courchesne’s artist’s talk will appear in RT#46

RealTime issue #45 Oct-Nov 2001 pg. 25

© Adam Hyde; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 2001