Tuesday, April 17, 2012


Asa Butterfield in Hugo

Since the industrial revolution, artists have been fascinated with machines. This is especially true for the modernists, who seem to have enjoyed a sense of progress in the real world after the symbolist movement and their desire for the otherworldly had died away with the first world war. I think that what drives artists to resort to machine aesthetics today are different ideals altogether.

We saw Martin Scorceses' recent movie Hugo the other day but found it appallingly poor. It's wooden, slow and tedious, not to mention smacked with cliches. The only positive was to find out that it was about a real film maker Melies. I have an open mind when it comes to films that are mainly directed to the young (but was it?) however I'm getting increasingly frustrated with these films that are badly acted and so slow I doubt whether any kid would have the attention span to watch them. Another similar example is Airbender by Shyamalan who created a few fairly enticing movies in his time. 

Hugo features the rather typical steampunk romanticism that is still alive and well, with an automaton (a self-operating robot) as one of its main protagonists. In other words, intriguing machinery and an oldy worldy set (in this case a 1930s railway station)  is crucial to this kind of film.

I thought it thus rather interesting that the posh and often disliked Oriel Davies (gallery) in our neighbouring town Newtown featured short films with references to the dawn of movie making and oldy worldly machinery. Pia Borg won the competition in the previous open exhibition and was therefore offered a slot in the gallery. We had just checked in to see if something was on and didn't expect to sit down and watch films, so we both found it quite hard to stretch our attention span. I liked the oldy worldy, scratchy atmosphere of these approximately ten minute long videos, and they certainly confirm my suspicion that a big part of the population nourishes a nostalgia for times gone past that I also express in my collages. The new film The Artist, which I haven't seen, is a silent movie in the "old style". Yet I'm quite surprised that this vintage feel in Borg's work as well as the rather trite references to the passing of time and memory would go down that well with the director of this particular gallery. I suppose it's because the artist already has a nice track record from big galleries all over the world and comes out of The Royal College of Art... You can watch the winning film Palimpsest or excerpts from several films in the showreel here on Vimeo

Pia Borg: Stills from "The Crystal World", 2012
I don't know if hair floating in water is that original...

Palimpsest portrays a building and its occupants over a few centuries. The Automaton is a living person acting like an automaton, with a lot of imagery of old machines. The piece The Crystal World was created specifically for the exhibition and its main feature is part of a film from 1955 in which a woman gets murdered and chucked in a lake. The sequences were slowed down to create a dreamlike ambience. The bits from the original film are quite long and I found that a little bit odd from a point of view of copy right and originality. Other sequences that seemed original had been added to it like a moving collage. The persons in the two latter films are caught in weird and uncomfortable situations. I found it all quite likeable and technically very well executed, and it's obviously a treat to see art that has "made it" on the international art scene. Albeit I found the work somewhat lacking in originality and deeper message. Perhaps as a symbolist, I am particularly critical when it comes to a real message and just "time passing", "memory" and "uncomfortable situations" don't quite cut it for me. And I wonder how exactly you are supposed to enjoy this form of art - I always thought video installations in gallery rather difficult to deal with. In this case I was quite interested to see how the films were done since I am pondering whether I could venture to do a short autobiographical video based on a short symbolic story myself (well, nothing very fancy of course...).

On Oriel Davies' website you can read
"Through combining contrasting time periods, together with disparate cultural references and symbolism, Borg plays with aspects of recall and memory, creating ambiguity between the actual and the virtual." I wouldn't call this symbolism but surrealism, i.e. a mishmash of imagery such as hair floating in water, machine wheels rolling and meat coming out of a meat grinder without any obvious coherent interrelationship. I also feel that it's all been seen before - references to Le Chien Andalou come to mind. I'm sure you could think of the sequence as symbolizing a lack of vivaciousness as well as fluidity of thought and creativity that ails a lot of people of today but I think it's a bit of a long shot, especially as the machinery is old looking rather than new and sterile. Why all this imagery of machines? Well, I think it's easy. It looks good. It has the charm of loved and old, nicely worn out, pieces of antiques. I think generally speaking all this pretended symbolism is actually nice looking imagery taking precedence over deeper meaning. I do truly enjoy the atmosphere conjured up by this intriguing vintage looking imagery but that's as far as it goes.

Helena Blomqvist: Warm June, 2011
A similar approach can be found in the work of Helena Blomqvist, a Swedish photographer who creates dreamlike images using paintings and various props along with digital manipulation. Many of her images are fairytale-like, like stuff I've seen a lot of on Flickr (Fairytales and Fantasy are overall popular right now, be it low or high brow art). She's successful, but is it more about the craft than the contents? Is it about being clever regarding the set up? Some of her work is reasonably enticing. But again I'm missing some originality... rooftops, handmade houses and forests with various stiff figures can get a bit predictable. I prefer the older work that carries a hint of symbolism.

Helena Blomqvist: "The Silent Stream", 2011 (digitally manipulated photograph)

Sculptures of old bits of machines is also often seen in an age of "recycling aesthetics", for instance here in Jeremy Mayer's case.

Wayne Martin Belger creates fantastic pin hole cameras where each camera contains something that symbolizes the subject matter it was created for... check it out here!

Time lapse is all the rage, and was also part of the films at the Oriel Davies and especially one by Sean Vicary. Martin is very keen on getting a camera for this particular purpose, which to be fair doesn't cost much, and do some stuff with it for his projects. He's getting on with his work for the two upcoming exhibitions, some of which will be illustrations for a symbolic book that I read as a young girl and recommended to him.

Here is Martin's recent drawing, a jesting reference to Leonardo Da Vinci's flying machine! The design is all his own, created with the help of some software that renders one's visual ideas into a three dimensional form.

"Design for a Flying Machine to Escape the Bank Manager" : 72 x 52 cm :
Sepia ink, sanguine pencil, gouache & transfer print on tempera-washed
handmade Khadi paper : Copyright © 2012 by Martin Herbert

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