Friday, March 11, 2011

Notes on Passage, my first solo show

This is a photo of a doorway that I shot somewhere in Hong Kong, during my residency at the Hong Kong Arts Centre back in 2009. I shot it because the doorway seemed like one of those obscure/ sleazy doorways in stories that lead to/camouflage something/ someone alien/magical. The weapons stash of a half-mad exile from Arcturus. A defrocked sorcerer selling hallucinogenic dragon pee to bohemian socialites. The Aleph. Dr. Jekyll's second apartment, etc.

Directly below is a still of the staircase portion of PASSAGE, my first solo show. (documentation video here) Can't believe it took this long, but I guess I'm just one of those late bloomers/slow workers. Part of the reason is that major part of my practice seems to incorporate the process of technological development: Every work is based on or uses some technology or technique I haven't tried before. That I find this fun goes without saying, but it naturally slows down my production speed, as there's a lot of testing, exploration, discarding, revision and so on.

At any rate, the show ran from Jan 15 to Feb 5 2011 at the Pablo Art Gallery in Fort Bonifacio, in Taguig. It was curated by Lisa Chikiamco of Visual Pond as the first show in End Frame 3, her series of exhibitions showcasing the current state of video art practice in the Philippines. I'm looking forward to seeing the other shows, as it promises to look outside conceptual art practice, which had till recently succeeded in equating the conceptualists' use of video as the entirety of video art.

In the case of this work, I was concerned with transforming the gallery into a single work, a space which would enclose people and within which they would have a unified experience. Pablo in The Fort is a very sculptural space, kind of an upside-down L, with built-in cabinets in the back. I've simplified it in my drawing but not by much:

The ground floor is linked to the upper floor by a simple stair without a banister that leads to an open doorway. It seemed pretty obvious that the second floor room should host some kind of revelation or climax, reached by the stairway, and that the first room should host some kind of preparation, or contrast to it.

Memories of magical doorways had been swirling about my head for months since I'd run across the Girl in the Fireplace episode of Doctor Who late in 2010: The Guardian of Forever in the Star Trek episode written by Harlan Ellison. The Time Tunnel. The rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland. The wormholes in The Time Bandits. The mirror in Through the Looking Glass, reprised in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. The cabinet in Narnia. The doors into other worlds in Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy and so on. (SF geek.)

I'd been seeing video mapping around the net for months (Essentially, video mapping consists of projecting a video image very precisely onto 3D objects so that perspective cues within the image like foreshortening, keystoning, and so on coincide with the appearance and orientation of the objects, with the result that the images appear to be a property of the object, instead of being something imposed upon it by a projector.) however, it wasn't until I saw the video artist/film editor Edsel Abesames' execution of it at Tujiko Noriko's set at Fete dela WSK last November 19 that I finally decided to try my hand at it.

Seed Ideas

My first idea was to try to make the walls of the upper room disappear, which, aside from the wow factor involved, tickled me for being an inversion of the usual use of video mapping: I would have been using it to eliminate the 3D properties of an object. I wanted to create another green world on the second floor, a forest planet that you could reach by climbing a staircase made of water, which would be the magical space-time-crossing passageway to the planet, and the passage in show's title. Of course, this would have entailed projecting images on most of the five of the six walls of the room, and it didn't take long to confirm that I didn't have enough projectors or the right lenses to do this, so I scrapped that and eventually came up with the idea of keeping the video mapping idea, but using it to make another passageway, this time a door that appeared to punch through the edges and surfaces of the part of the room that had cabinets in it, violating the space of the room, even as it led to another space altogether. I cobbled together the loop of a wind-ruffled flower garden behind an ancient and disused gate, an image that seemed to ring with archetypal ideas. In a way I liked this idea better, as it made it so that the passage didn't end on the second floor. By putting a gate there, the second floor didn't host Fairyland or Utopia or Eden, something which no projection could hope to live up to, but only a gate that you felt you could almost pass through.

On the left is the image of the gate, predistorted so that it would look right when projected on the cabinets in the back. Apparently this technique of predistortion is called anamorphosis and is supposedly described by Leonardo da Vinci in one of his notebooks. Hans Holbein the Younger famously used it to insert a skull/memento mori in his painting The Ambassadors.

The other instance of video mapping in the show was of course the staircase, which I mapped with a loop of water canted so that it appeared to flow upwards, and cropped so that the projection was confined entirely within the surfaces of the stairs. I'd initially thought of mixing science fiction with fantasy and having the words "CLIMB ME" rolling on the stairs in some kind of LED/dot matrix font, but in the end I thought it was too cute, and too obvious a reference to the mushroom scene Alice in Wonderland.

One of the touchstones of the work was the experience of being a child in a strange place. A place filled with looming presences and operating procedures that were beyond anything you knew or were familiar with. This is a state that a young child encounters almost daily, a state whose invocation is perhaps the main reason we read fantastic literature, or even encounter art. The image and sound of a door opening and closing that I projected high up on the wall of the first floor, beside the doorway at the top of the stair came from memories of fantastic literature filtered through the memories of that state. A child's perception of loud and unfamiliar things happening in a distant room. Arguments, perhaps, or maybe just adults yelling instructions to each other, the way waitresses will yell orders in noisy diners, or supervisors will yell instructions to the drivers /operators of large machines. A construction site or loading dock, where everyone except you knows what they're doing and what's going on.

Happy Accidents

One of the things that I hadn't anticipated was the sheer amount of light that would fill the ground floor room whenever the projected door would open onto the image of a white room. The image was brightest at this point, and its light of the image would bounce off the walls, illuminating everything, wiping out the image of water on the stair. However, I found I liked the way the light levels seemed to breathe -- how stair would oscillate between being an ordinary stair and a stair made of water. I liked that people would feel the pull of the illusion again and again in spite of its having been extinguished only seconds earlier.

I also found that the work tended to co-opt the spaces surrounding it, to associate itself with bits of the world outside the gallery, something I discovered while visiting there with my cousin and his wife. On stepping out of the chilled darkness of the gallery, we felt assaulted by bright noon sunlight and the wind gusting on us and had to wait a few moments to readjust. It definitely felt as if we were returning from an interlude outside ordinary reality. The sense of this persisted as we walked across the sidewalk by the vacant lot towards High Street, where I had parked my car, the sense that the emptiness of the space was a bridge, another section of the journey to Fairyland.


Key to the work was my sense of how the elements in it "spoke" to the body, something that I'm relying on more and more when making things. It's involuntary somatic reactions -- eyes darting around, people watching their feet, stopping to listen, microexpressions of fear or searching that I watch out for. Lately I get the sense that people are composite entities and that I'm trying to talk to the submerged half, the mute and muted twin who can only be approached by slipping past the daylight twin's power to put things into words. Sound is effective in reaching this twin, but so (I think) is almost any other stimulus other than words and images. Smells, sounds, tastes, haptic sensations - they all enter through doors most people cannot consciously close. Working in the gallery at night, I found myself time and time again being startled, irritated and/or surprised by sounds I had created and layered myself. Sounds in particular seem to have a very intimate relationship with the survival instinct, causing the body to lurch and hesitate, declare and confess before we know what it's doing. We rely on sound to let us know where we are, who is there with us, what is approaching. Voices and instruments drifting in and out of hearing as doors opened and closed. The sound of water in the corner where the staircase was. Birds and wind upstairs, coming from the direction of the doorway. The writer/publisher Erwin Romulo observed that the work seemed to be a narrative of some kind, an observation that I had some difficulty understanding, as the work contained no human figures or characters, let alone anything like a protagonist. Took me a while to realize that he spoke out of a sense that the work was a kind of everted film, with the character displaced to occupy the body of the viewer, a story with a setting, a sequence, a rudimentary plot of revelation, and --with the viewer's addition -- even a dazed/bemused antihero.

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