Nau mai, haere mai, welcome to eyeCONTACT, a forum built to encourage art reviews and critical discussion about the visual culture of Aotearoa New Zealand. I'm John Hurrell its editor, a New Zealand writer, artist and curator. While Creative New Zealand and other supporters are generously paying me and other contributors to review exhibitions over the following year, all expressed opinions are entirely our own.

Friday, September 26, 2008

By hook or by crook

Daniel Crooks: Everywhere instantly
Christchurch Art Gallery
18 July - 9 November 2008

With this exhibition Jenny Harper (Director of CAG) and Justin Paton (Senior Curator) have established themselves as the successors to Greg Burke (Govett-Brewster 1998 - 2005), as entrepreneurs of gallery spectacle. Their installation of Crooks' bodily immersive art should attract art pilgrims from the length and breadth of the country – while also exciting their very large local constituency to take advantage of easily repeated visits. Plus indicating to all, the way of civic art of the future: the merging of the cinematic with an acutely visceral and yet social experience.

Though born in Hastings (N.Z.), Crooks is a long established Melbourne resident who is rapidly acquiring an international reputation for his installations of projected moving images. With a show that samples five series of works (eight artworks in total) it is easy to see why.

With works that digitally cut into the filmed image to create stacked vertical or horizontal slivers (what Crooks calls ‘time slices’) he is clearly following in the traditions of Marey or Muybridge. Yet it is easy to exaggerate the importance of time to his practice – rather, to our experience of his practice. Some of these works are so bodily penetrating it is music that is the closest parallel. Especially when the rhythmic beat is unrelenting.

In fact you are more aware of time in the works in the foyer, where temporal sensation changes (compresses and then expands) in a hallucinatory fashion. At first glance the black and white images of Imaginary Objects # 1 and #4 seem to be static photographs. Inspired by Hiroshi Sugimoto’s photographs of clay geometrical teaching aids, Crooks’s stark forms instead have cast shadows that move almost imperceptibly. These works seem to place Crooks as an artist preoccupied with slowness like Min Tanaka, Bill Viola or Douglas Gordon who tease out the threshold of what normal observation can detect.

Yet just when you have it figured out, Crooks changes the lack of tempo and gradually speeds up the movement of the shadows. Then suddenly the shapes, originally like architectural ornaments, themselves morph into dry plant forms with leaves that start to unravel and billow out. You notice time because it becomes alarmingly unstable.

With Train No.1, one moving train is filmed from another going in the opposite direction. Although you can ponder Einstein’s account of his Theory of Relativity (involving this same train scenario) if you wish, this panoramic work (using eight projectors in a row) is particularly immersive and hypnotic, with its clicking soundtrack and flickering vertical pulses that seem almost subliminal. To use art historical comparisons, the works seem like Balla’s 1912 futurist painting Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash transmuted by Steve Reich’s Music for Eighteen Musicians, or kinetically converted David Hockney’s Polaroid photograph collages of the eighties. The images seem to rapidly fibrillate, as if advancing, returning and then advancing again: a very rapid, inbuilt, vibrating shudder.

Though there is an overall process operating, the artist seems to occasionally intervene and manipulate the groupings of vertical slices, particularly when passengers are emerging from the carriage doors, or when the filmed train moves to the right and the fence in the foreground as an illusion moves to the left. The rhythmic tensions and ripples of movement are very tightly controlled.

A less horizontal, more planar, compact musicality is found in Static No.10 (falling as a means of rising), based on film of rolling waves and frothy licks of foaming curlicues. Crooks here seems to have blended opposite alignments so that forwards blends with backwards, upright with inverted, flipped over image with normal. What looks like at first an overhead aerial shot becomes a three-quarter view. Disparate pieces of imagery showing falling water from separate locations are merged together, with jumps where large sections have been removed. Foam flicks backwards like crazed leaping salmon, creating a visual pleasure just as musical groups such as The Beatles or Radiohead have done with aural material played backwards. The shallow space of this eddying agitated swirl relates to some Bill Hammond paintings, Roni Horn’s Thames photographs, and of course the woodcuts of Hokusai.

The other Static work, No.9 (a small section of something larger), still has a musicality but introduces another of Crooks’ interests, spatial recession. It features horizontal slices that examine portions of moving bodies: mainly walking feet, but sometimes swinging elbows, hands with bags, or fabric covered hips. These are stacked up vertically and vary from swinging vertical cords to bowed lines and swirling DNA spirals. They move across the screen in both horizontal directions. Often Crooks doubles the length of the compressed rectangles to create depth - with smaller lines in the distance and overlapping descending ‘ropes’ in the foreground.

This depth is also found in Train No.1, and like in Static No.9, it is not enterable. In the room showing Pan Nos. 2, 4 and 5, the three rectangles of walking pedestrians and cruising traffic present a new sort of spatial relationship, one that offers the viewer a limited entry.

These Pan images have no ‘slices’ with clean, sharp, straight edges, but rather are horizontal bands with smeared wobbly borders. Not geometrical but organic, they feature vertical and horizontal distortions, akin to the elongated forms of Giacometti and the blurred smudgy paint of Francis Bacon. They have the mercurial rounded forms of mirages, and are like the distorted stretched blobs seen in reflecting amusement park mirrors.

One looks through and at these rectangles. When ‘at’ one is confronted by Kenneth Nolandlike bands of twitching ‘awning’ colour formed by merged subjects pushed into a horizontal alignment like plasticine; when ‘though’ one usually sees foreground figures moving to the right, and background walkers drifting backwards to the left. One is drawn into this separation, moving into the parting of the lines of figures so that your eye enters a new terrain of limited depth before being cut off by the descending ‘Noland curtain’.

This works in a non-interactive fashion like the interactive pavilions made of two way glass by Dan Graham in the early nineties. Located in many European parks, their planes of distorting glass amuse onlookers who can also look through them to see others being similarly entertained on the other side. Thus people can move around the sculpture, wave through the glass to each other and yell, something clearly impossible in Crooks’ projections where audience and filmed pedestrians can never connect.

Dan Graham is also famous for his time-delay videos, which with cameras and monitors set up in shopping malls, are a great favourite with energetic children who like to film themselves pulling faces and then sprint across the mall to see their delayed efforts in the monitors. Crooks’ sensibility is quite different. He is a crafter of images more than processes – though obviously the latter are hugely important. His work is not open-ended but aimed ultimately at a finite generator of visual pleasure that grows out of his own playful invention.

There is no doubt this remarkable exhibition is a real coup for Christchurch. It combines accessibility with sophistication to set a new benchmark for this country’s art institutions to measure their projects by. One can only hope that the good citizens of ‘The Garden City’ (and other NZ cities too) cotton on to its existence in mass and visit before it comes down in early November.


Unknown said...

This show really frustrated me. I think for a number of reasons, some of which I have tried and failed to articulate - but I am going to give it another go here! As a viewer, spectacle can be a complex experience but within the CAG show, I found Crook's spectacle to be idealistic and very simplified. Like a kind of humanistic magic-eye, the work seemed to be telling me (you mention hypnosis) to think and feel in a very particular way about the relationship of technology to the social and cultural. Accompanying this, was also a sense that this work is incredibly passive to the point of being innocuous - for example Static No.10 (falling as a means of rising) that you have pictured.

John Hurrell said...

Thanks for your pithy comments, Marnie. You are dead right in that it is an exceptionally immersive show and the viewer acquieses in a state of total passivity. But that is no different from the experience provided by any big painting or exciting movie, in the way you are totally controlled. It is pure, gorgeous, mesmerising sensuality. What other large artworks in NZ public galleries are any different?

How do you define 'innocuous'? Should one like say,large Hammonds, only because they take a moral stance on historical events? What is wrong with pure pleasure? Especially if it is technically a new kind of sensuality. Or do you insist on the didactic as an essential element in 'serious' art?

I know what you are getting at, and that is why I compared it to music. You climb on board and drift with it.

Unknown said...

I am no purist John. I don't think that art is high or that high is a space reserved for art. I do, however, expect a kind of space for myself with art and Crook did not give me this.

I am not sure about your easy skip between painting and film, and also between some kind of shared standard for the "immersive". Certainly et al. does immersive in a different way, for a different context than, for example, Peter Jackson?

The Crook work offered me a place to do nothing from. Sure there are other major works in New Zealand and abroad in the past and I am sure in the future that will offer the complete jaw dropping, empty stomach feeling, but that is a) not an excuse for drooling and b) not the only way to go big...

John Hurrell said...

Just wondering...when you decry the lack of 'space' do you mean it is so overwhelming as to be fascistic? That there is something totalitarian about its crushing dominance as an experience.

I don't get that though in the 'wave' work (Static No.10). It is qute intimate. You can walk away easily, despite its seductive use of natural rhythms.

John Hurrell said...

Forgive me Marnie, I can't resist being an irritating little fox terrier snapping at your heels. Why should anybody need an excuse for drooling? What is wrong with pleasure? Hand out the bibs I say. Make the gallery floors sticky with drool. Such reflexes don't necessarily preclude thinking. The cerebral impulses are bodily too.