Daniel von Sturmer

Amelia Winata
Memo Review
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 Veils2014, 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.
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