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Time, space, light and sound

Updated: Jul 7, 2020

The moving image is the medium of the moment, in several senses. Janet Hughes sits, stands and walks her way through Semiconductor: the Technological Sublime at City Gallery Wellington and reflects on video as an art medium.

This is the time of the moving image. In an impatient and distractible age, it is presumed to trump the art object that just hangs or sits there. But it doesn’t always deliver an impact commensurate with the demands it makes – dedicated space, limiting the capacity of the venue and the company it keeps. And by definition, it takes our time. Wander into a blacked-out space, and you may stay enthralled to watch the loop through again, but you may well duck out apologetically (if there are others present) before it runs its course.

Semiconductor, Earthworks, 2016, installation view

The reasons the art video may fail to compel aesthetically range from concept and production values to the presentation the final product. A longtime teacher of art videography said to me once, when I growled about the thinness of the projected image compared with the materiality of older media: ‘Well, ideally it shouldn’t be projected, for starters’. Indeed art museums are sprouting smaller, wall-hung high-definition screens that hold their own with other media in the same space and in daylight. There is one of these in the array of video installations by Ruth Jarman and Joe Gerhart that makes up Semiconductor: the Technological Sublime, and it is a striking little short-loop work. But the main event is projected, as are all the other component works, to a high standard of definition. They don’t disappoint.

Dominating the show is Earthworks, a colossal computer animation projected onto an enormous screen that is unfolded along a vast blacked-out space. It spreads colours and shapes like marbling on water, depicting the dynamics of large-scale seismic data derived from sources such as CERN and NASA to synced sound on a suitably massive scale. Geological forms and forces are intimated: then sped-up time jars into overdrive with the jolts and skittering drum traces of the Kaikoura earthquakes. The publicity describes the colour palette as eye-candy, but there are clear allusions to earth seen from space, geologic strata, topographic maps, and fierce red seismographic traces among dominantly soft-coloured pastels. It is enchanting and absorbing, the aesthetic and affective impact affirming the compelling scale of the data and the forces it records.

The work is fundamentally inventive and powerful, underpinned by high production values; and thoughtful presentation completes the package. There’s a set at one end of the largely blacked-out long Gallery, with ample standing room behind it. This affords a skewed panorama, emphasising the gentle zigzag angling of the sections of continuous screen. But there’s also masses of standing space opposite the screen. You can stand facing it against a long wall, or in the big open entranceway to the exhibit. The soundtrack rumbles and tumbles into the adjacent space, pulling in passers-by. You can peer in, in passing between the other works in the show; and you can sample in half-light before opting for immersion.

Semiconductor, Earthworks, 2016, detail

Earthworks is clearly the star of the show, but the several other video works in more conventional full blackout succeed in various degrees. Frankly glitchy monochrome renderings of the tracks of cosmic rays (Brilliant Noise) might fascinate some viewers, but I found the fritzy soundtrack and bright flashes disagreeable – not for the migraine-prone. Another work combines conventional video of seismological observations, animated intimations of seismic activity in a real volcanic landscape, and human responses to seismic threats in art and life in a clever three-screen overlapping sequence. The idiom here is cinematic, again secured by high production values and nice judgement. It made a touching and thought-provoking counterpoint to the abstracted, beautified aesthetic of Earthworks.

Semiconductor can be enjoyed variously. You can lap up the shifting shapes and colours for themselves. You can marvel at their origins in phenomena – the inverse of the wonder electron microscopy can deliver. Or you can think about beauty, implacable force, human ingenuity and vulnerability, the complexity of cosmic and seismic phenomena, and explore their permutations and implications. Chances are you’ll want come back to that wide entranceway for more.

First published Art Zone #79


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