Relics reveal more than meets the eye
Robert Nelson Reviewer
An enormous collection of optical curiosities has been brought to Melbourne. It is a whole history of visual technology.
There are mirrors, distorting rooms, projectors, oscillating slides, flip-images, technical books, binocular images, puppets, anamorphic images and holograms. These relics, mostly from the 19th century, stretch out in wonderful profusion in Eyes, Lies and Illusions.
The scope and effect of the various tools are amazing. Some are merely for entertainment, a bit like toys. Others reveal serious ways of capturing movement. The hope of recording the experience of movement became a credible project since the Enlightenment, as space had already been conquered pictorially by painters and illustrators.
Every trick in the visual trade is on display. Many of them are antecedents to film, that is, the moving image; and some even bear the title of "cinema", before the word came to mean a film theatre and the generic term for the movies.
The apparatus doesn't always move. Sometimes, you move. As your position changes, a scramble of blotches resolves into a crisp image. Or it's just the eye and brain that move, as when you toggle between human face and body in the various double images. Some of the illustrations have psychoanalytical implications, as when an old male face is made up of nubile nudes.
The collection is intended to show the low-tech predecessors of film and video, the pre-history of film, if you like.
But many objects lie outside the technological destiny of film. Some of the contrivances focus on still pictures and are engineered simply to yield a stronger sensation of three dimensions than was possible in painting or photography. Others are projection systems for the theatre; some are montages and others are just panoramas.
The devices aren't an antecedent to film in one sense: they don't really serve an autonomous expressive function. They sometimes provide snippets of movement that present a marvel, an achievement of optical engineering or spectacle; it's great fun, though mostly without an expressive purpose beyond the technique.
For our times, there's a wonderful paradox in these beautiful objects. They're evocative in their own right, as objects of encounter: it's the revenge of sculpture upon the moving image.
The woodworking skills behind these aesthetically delightful contraptions are often more impressive than their illusions. Some pieces even have classical or Gothic detail, in keeping with the architectural eclecticism of the times.
The exhibition is dimly lit and the scientific equipment, frequently box-shaped and made from dark wood, provides an enchanting atmosphere. Between the experimental and the institutional, these conjuring- devices are full of boyish enthusiasm, mixing the arts of measurement and evocation in a sculptural way. With toolkit and fantasy, they reflect a time when science was still magical.
The contemporary art doesn't sit comfortably with the naive scientific airs in the show. The clever instruments and learned historical explanations seem at odds with much of the contemporary work. We read the contemporary pieces as museum illustrations of old theories, rather than serious works in their own right. The contemporary pieces often lack the charm and enchantment of the technological exemplars. Anthony McCall's dark room with a cone of light and haze seems pompous. And Carsten Hoeller's Punktefilm - a dancing couple who register only as points of light in a dark field - lacks the bizarre erotic charge of the chronophotography of Eadweard Muybridge, which it accompanies. Eyes, Lies and Illusions
was drawn from the Werner Nekes Collection and was first shown at the Hayward Gallery in London. If it had been curated in Australia, it could have benefited from many artists who have a profound interest in ocular fibs, mysterious things in boxes, mirrors, anamorphic distortions, dioramas and closed-circuit video.
The video work of Daniel von Sturmer (seen recently at ACCA) is an example. Juan Ford has long had an interest in anamorphic distortion; and his recent show at Dianne Tanzer contained images similar to those at ACMI, with the difference that the abstract reflective central cylinders were replaced by stainless steel Brabantia rubbish bins and other desirable domestic gear.
Today is the last opportunity to see Ruth Hutchison's work at Sutton Gallery. A wall of eyes stares at you upon entry, all individually painted upon nuts. There are strange boxes, one with a mirror inside that let you espy a skeleton, taking the scientific trickery into sinister areas outside rational control, just as occurred in the 19th century.