Often in films it’s not just the characters and the story that are sources of pleasure for me but also the appearance of objects or emblems which support the narrative. And sometimes in works of art it’s the aura, mystery and intrigue that I enjoy because they have the power to transform the ’thing’ – and make me think hard about what I have encountered.
A few days ago I happened to see two quite different examples of what has become known as ‘the moving image’. Both, in quite different ways, were worth seeing. The first, a film, told a sophisticated story. The second was presented in the large gallery of the local University for the Creative Arts. This work, though, did not appear to tell a specific story. It was a categorically different form of moving image from the film – and might perhaps best be described as an ‘artist installation work’.
Taken together the two examples of the moving image revealed something which fascinated me about the nature of art and the way we become used to its modes of expression.
The first film, about espionage and politics, included some beautiful visual moments that added great charm and significance to the characters and the context. These included the impeccable evening dress worn by a number of men at a prestigious and very English formal event, the sight of Pembroke College, Cambridge, an excerpt from a short film of the lovely Billie Holliday singing ‘Fine and mellow’ – and a painting by the artist Christopher Woods. It was the painting and some references to the artist himself that struck me as particular interesting.
The second ‘artist installation work’ featured two large projection screens onto which were beamed highly colourful rapidly changing images; these images were partly created by a strange structure set a few feet away from each of the screens, a structure that sparkled and revolved and which was intrinsic to – and a necessary part of – the overall experience. I visited the gallery with my two grand-daughters who were not yet two years old. They had a wonderful time running around the gallery spaces and watching their shadows appear and, of course move, on the surface of the projection screens. No one else was present.
The two examples – the painting and the spectacle – shown in the two different types of moving image underlined the way the arts continue to evolve and to distinguish themselves as highly differentiated forms of consciousness. The painting by Christopher Wood (which featured in the film) is known as ‘The card players’. The artist’s style and figurative content dates it to the first half of the twentieth century. From 1921 onwards Woods trained as a painter at the Académie Julian in Paris, where he met, among others Picasso and Jean Cocteau and where, against the background of post-Impressionism, he developed a style that some critics have described as ‘primitive expressionism’. I imagine that most people who might set eyes on the painting would immediately have the feeling that they were looking at the work of an excellent artist whilst recognising that it reflects the conventions of its time some 100 years ago. In short what was once new now looks terrific but dated.
The second work happened to be called ‘Thrum’; a single sheet of A4 paper summed it up as ‘a spectacle of colour, light, sound and movement created by time – encoded in pattern’. We also learned that ‘Thrum’ was ‘a series of kinetic sculptures producing moving images.’ Apparently we were seeing the ‘first and only showing of ‘Thrum V and VI’; but it was down to us – to anyone who saw the two Thrums – to make sense of and give meaning to the work. Plainly Thrum met the three core criteria of Conceptual art: it provoked some sort of cerebral almost philosophic reflection; it had an inner and coherent thematic content; and it looked ‘good’ – it ‘looked the part.’ On top of this, in broad terms, the work could only be ‘completed’ by the viewer him or herself. In a way, it demonstrated that the acts of perception preceded the acts of thinking.
What, though, might we make of such a work? Well, it struck me that, in striking contrast to the painting by Christopher Wood, ‘Thrum’ locates itself, unquestionably, in the ethos and mood of contemporary advanced art. It just had the right kind of look! The concepts that the artist, Will Bishop Stevens, used in order to outline ‘what’ we might see made reference to ‘creating contemporary forms of animation’.
But I would not have grasped that it referenced ‘animation’ if I had not been told that it did. I was only made aware of this a week after seeing the exhibition when I read the piece of paper about ‘Thrum’; instead, and before I had read the text, I came up with the following possible meanings by which I could make sense of what I had experienced.
First, I thought that the work expressed a feeling of super-natural weird elusiveness as if hinting at something ungraspable and actually beyond culture. I enjoyed thinking about this as a possibility.
Second, since everything on the large screens was moving so quickly I wondered if I was seeing a rendition of Baudrillard’s ‘Pataphysics of the year 2000’; in this essay he suggests that the speeded-up nature of our lives – of our perceptions and the relentless blasts of information – means that nothing ever has the chance to settle and crystallise – and, therefore, we cannot slow things down enough for history to be possible. The idea of history becoming impossible is extraordinary and yet rather implausible.
Third, I wondered if the experience of Thrum was an allusion to the hyper-realities of the city – to Tokyo or Milan or London at night – with those flickering percepts of faceless faces and a blending of the real and the dream. It may even have been hinting at Umberto Eco’s famous notion of a world in which the fake has become more real than the real.
I was perfectly happy to think about the work in these kinds of inter-related ways and to imagine what it might be referring to in the wider culture whilst not having the slightest idea that it was more closely tied to animation. It may even be the case that I never really needed to read the text and never needed to know that it was about ‘animation’; but when I discovered its link to animation I realised that I need to understand more about how to distinguish animation from anything else.
However, I think that the two examples of the moving image that I saw underline a demanding truth about art, its inter-subjective conventions and knowledge. The philosopher Richard Peters has indicated that our specific modes of thought and awareness (such as art, science, history, philosophy, mathematics, politics and so on) entail distinct forms of thought which all have a history, a content, concepts and methods of validation that are specific to them. In other words they are highly specialised and inevitably characterised by a kind of shared internal language that is more or less restricted to the initiated. And, at the same time, the concepts and meanings are likely to be continually revised and developed – as new forms of understanding, ways of ‘seeing’ and specific modes of cultural convention emerge. Art, in this sense, is always caged. And then it gets uncaged and then re-caged.
Christopher Wood’s wonderful work reflected the concepts, the style(s) and modes of perception specific to his time. ‘Thrum’ – by Will Bishop Stevens – reflects a moment in advanced contemporary art – a moment that expresses the techno-spectacle, a work which self-consciously explores itself, and which, at the same time is marked by a search to include much more than actually meets the eye. It serves as a rendition of the current vogue for entanglement. By this I mean that each element in the work of art is understood to be connected to a diffuse network of associations and meanings. (See note below) To that extent it reveals its inseparability from the early 21st century specific ‘advanced’ art conventions of taste and validity.
Post script: The film in which the painting by Christopher Wood appears is entitled, ‘Page Eight’. The photograph shows part of the Thrum exhibition in the large gallery space at the University for the Creative Arts in Farnham.
Note: Thrum, for example, simultaneously embraces and exploits both a culture of extraordinary technical sophistication as well as reflecting care for the environment; it highlights the value of uniqueness as well as the society of the spectacle. It may even serve as a metaphor for – or way of thinking about – the ‘mind/body’ problem. And so on.