Technological Delineation: "Moving Image: Portraiture" at UMMA
[http://umma.umich.edu/exhibitions/2017/moving-image-portraiture|Moving Image: Portraiture] at the University of Michigan Museum of Art aims to address portraiture through the lens of contemporary media. As the third and final component of a series drawn from the Borusan Contemporary collection in Istanbul, including [http://umma.umich.edu/exhibitions/2016/moving-image-landscape|Moving Image: Landscape] and [http://pulp.aadl.org/node/360668|Moving Image: Performance], each of the three artists included in this small exhibition uses technology to convey complex ideas, not only about the history of portraiture and representation but how technology can change our ideas of what constitutes portraiture.
Hannu Karjalainen’s installation [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OgzacsKwhmU|Towards an Architect] is the largest-format video in the gallery. The work is a homage to the color palettes used by Swiss wallpaper company Salubra, which was employed by [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Le_Corbusier|Le Corbusier], a Swiss-French architect. UMMA describes the work as a portrayal of a “fictional architect who is experiencing the response of people living in the structures he designed.”
The video, while based on the work of Le Corbusier, also references the story of French architect Guillaume Gillet, the designer of the 1960s prison Fleury-Mérogis. Influenced by Le Corbusier’s modernism, the prison was intended to produce a harmonious environment to produce “happy convicts,” but it did not live up to its promised ideals. Instead, dissatisfied inmates attacked the architect, destroying his office and holding him at gunpoint.
Karjalainen’s video references this event through the use of paints that evoke Le Corbusier's favored colors, but the gooey liquids are dumped mercilessly over the male subject in the video. The man is seemingly drowning under the thick layers of paint, leading to a claustrophobic aesthetic. A minute and 30 seconds into the video, the yellow/ochre paint begins dripping over the right side of the subject’s shoulders. Starting with a few shades, the paint is not immediately suffocating or overwhelming. But once the pale fuchsia is introduced, the palette begins to take form; then a pale blue is dumped over “the architect’s” head, lending to a sense of claustrophobia as it drips down his face.
Finally, a vat of black paint obscures the rest of the face, covering the other colors almost entirely. As the paint drips in the final 30 seconds of the video, underlying colors come through the black, leaving an eerily skull-like appearance on the lower portion of the architect’s face.
Daniel Rozin's Mirror No. 10 is a software-driven “reflection” in which the museum’s surroundings are generated on-screen. Rozin works as an artist, educator, and developer working with interactive digital art. Many of his works, like the one on display at UMMA, are interactive sculpture and installations that respond to the surrounding stimuli, particularly the presence of the viewer.
This is true of Mirror No. 10, in which the viewer is depicted on-screen in a “live sketch.” No photographing is allowed, though it was tempting to document myself sketchily represented on the screen, with other museumgoers standing next to me, equally impressed with their likenesses. Framed by the architecture of the museum, it was akin to being in a virtual reality in which I was represented with my surroundings as an artist’s sketch. This is a portrait -- and it is not, as it fades from view when the subject leaves.
Marina Zurkow’s video [http://www.o-matic.com/play/friend/mesocosmUK/indexPlay.html|Mesocosm (Northumberland, UK)] is a 2011 algorithmic work in which the surroundings change and never repeats. According to the artist’s website, the “title Mesocosm is drawn from the field of environmental science and refers to experimental, simulated ecosystems that ‘allow for manipulation of the physical environment ... [for] organismal, community, and ecological research.’”
Zurkow uses this idea as a starting point for her work. In it, animals (a seemingly endlessly generated list of species), humans, and objects appear and disappear, moving through the landscape. Though the surroundings are never exactly the same, the changes happen around a still, central figure who is based on [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lucian_Freud|Lucian Freud’s] painting of [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leigh_Bowery|Leigh Bowery], an influential performance artist, designer, and drag queen in 1980s London. One hour of real-world time is equal to one minute on-screen, which means that one-year on-screen elapses in 146 hours.
The video shows an impressive range of animals (dogs, owls, squirrels, foxes, and even pixies), weather conditions, strange objects, and sounds throughout time. The video is not only meant to represent the passage of time on the moors of Northeast England; as Una Chaudhuri’s analysis on the artist’s website states:
In Mesocosm (Northumberland, UK), [Leigh Bowery] acts as a Green Man, a corpulent bridge to the world beside the human: his nighttime excursions outside the edges of the landscape imply action beyond the wings of the constructed theatrical landscape, while by day he permits various small creatures not only to climb on him but also to feed on him, producing the only specks of color -- blood red -- in the work.
The algorithm generates endless possibilities of occurrences in this virtual world, addressing questions of "nature," time itself, and the vehicle of representation. This is, in a sense, like Rozin’s temporary virtual sketch of the surrounding area, in that both create a virtual space that is transient and fleeting. But Karjalainen’s work differs in that it is a video stream that remains the same as it repeats, though it addresses questions of time and the resonance of portraiture in relation to the historical through Le Corbusier’s palette.
Moving Image: Portraiture is on display until November 26, and while two of these pieces can be seen online, it is worth going to the gallery to see these works in the darkened space of the gallery. Karjalainen’s work, in particular, made an impact in the gallery space, because it is projected on a large wall, the colors and paint sleek and large and overwhelming in the dark room.
➥ [http://pulp.aadl.org/node/360668|Moving Image: Performance] (Pulp review)
Elizabeth Smith is an AADL staff member and is interested in art history and visual culture.
"[http://umma.umich.edu/exhibitions/2017/moving-image-portraiture|Moving Image: Portraiture]" is at UMMA, 525 S. State St., through November 26. Free. Visit [http://umma.umich.edu|umma.umich.edu] for more information.