Landscape Thinking

Charlotte Day

Inside the gallery

In The Field Equation a large number of white boxes of varying dimensions are arranged, like a landscape of increasing and diminishing heights, across the floor of ACCA’s gallery. While some function as plinths supporting video projections and others support found and constructed objects, the majority are not occupied. Reminiscent of early minimalist sculptural forms, these unoccupied boxes function in other ways. They connect the floor space to the walls, reducing the scale and shifting the geometric orientation of the gallery space, and encourage an intimate and meandering route through the installation.

Daniel von Sturmer’s project is a response to the imposing architecture of ACCA’s gallery – the large volume, the black grids, the gradual slope of the suspended ceiling and the narrowing angled walls that define the wedge-like space. By concentrating on the experience of the real space, von Sturmer plays down the gallery’s supposed ‘white cube’ neutrality, approaching it, instead, as a subjective spatial proposition.

An interest in the actuality of space, and, by extension, in relating the internal gallery space to the ‘real’ world outside the gallery, is evident in all von Sturmer’s projects to date. In earlier projects, he made use of camera obscura and architectural adjustments to project, literally, the outside world into the gallery, focusing the viewing experience on the simplest of things: an angle of light or an unassuming landmark. In recent projects, von Sturmer has focussed more closely on transforming the viewing conditions in the gallery space, reintroducing a sense of time as well as shifting the viewer’s orientation away from conventional and anticipated views to ones that are unexpected and often unprecedented.

Von Sturmer disrupts the gallery’s inherent ‘frame’ by multiplying viewing opportunities through expanding and contracting illusionary space. His videos are projected onto small free standing custom-made screens, thereby moving the picture plane off the wall and into the space of the gallery. Instead of providing a single perspective, the lightweight translucent screens can be viewed from all sides. As well, they are located amongst the field of boxes whose differing heights function to obscure as well as relate individual videos and the artist’s objects to one another, creating a work that cannot be seen all at once and can appear quite different from one vantage point to the next. As in other projects, such as The Truth Effect that was first exhibited at ACCA in 2003, the viewer’s peripheral vision becomes critical to the process of viewing the exhibition.

Experiments in the studio

Like Bruce Nauman in his early studio films and more recent videos documenting nocturnal activity in his studio, von Sturmer works with the materials, sounds and movements that are readily available.1 He experiments in his studio with materials such as house paint, string, polystyrene balls and coloured card, exploring their inherent quality and subjecting them to the forces of gravity and friction. His experiments are filmed, edited and then projected at close to 1:1 scale in the gallery space. Each is a document of a modest event or everyday phenomenon; for example, a ball rolling, the compulsion of small polystyrene balls to pack, or the quality that both paint and string share in being alternatively voluminous and flat.

Von Sturmer’s footage of these experiments is framed and shot in such a way that is designed to confound the viewer’s sense of space, scale, orientation, weight and gravity. There is no trickery or artifice at work here. The low tech and speculative nature of the video experiments is particularly evident in one video in which a hand-held camera follows the movement of a small blue ball across the floor of the studio. Just like the brief appearance of a mouse in Nauman’s video, humble events and things that are often overlooked loom large in these videos. The viewer is encouraged to observe closely and to question the fundamental structure of what they see. What is moving? Where is the foreground? How deep is the space? How heavy is the object? Of equal importance is what is not visible but effects perception; in particular, the viewer’s visual expectations and preconceptions.

Object lessons

Although objects have always featured in von Sturmer’s videos, they are presented more prominently, as ‘objects in their own right’, in the installation of The Field Equation. Many of the objects reiterate propositions found in the videos and some also have a historical relevance. For example, an actual pile of string appears to be the remnant prop of the twining string in one video. And it could also be read as homage to Marcel Duchamp’s provocative Mile of String, 1942 in which the artist trailed continuous string across a gallery space, following the alignment of the room and erratically replicating the ceiling, walls, temporary exhibition bays as well as the pictorial space of the exhibited paintings. In The Field Equation, white polystyrene balls that appear to rush heroically to a vanishing point in one video are retrieved and glued together in a fragile but safer cluster in object form. A small red cube that seems to be steadfast on a slowly rotating circular platform – perhaps something measurable in the incommensurable universe – is shown to promptly sink into oblivion in a pool of white paint in another video. This mesmerising video in which other coloured shapes befall a similar fate to the red cube could also be a revisiting of Malevich’s Suprematist end-game.2

Each object manipulates the space around it in some way – framing it, folding it, flattening it or deepening it. For example, in one wooden bent and twisted frame, a partial dissolution of space is achieved. In another object, a humble short plank of timber laid out in an almost ceremonial fashion, space is flattened in a way reminiscent of one of Robert Morris’s early works with its unusually evocative title Slab, 1962. While von Sturmer is not interested in projecting any specific symbolic value onto his objects, nonetheless there is a remarkable sensory quality in this work. The playful arrangement of other objects too (for example, perching polystyrene cones that could look like snow caps on the tallest box, and a tilted wood square reminiscent of a lectern at chest height), has a great influence on the audience’s engagement with the work.

The measure of things

As well as solid and linear shapes and forms, there are a number of ready-made and altered objects that have direct mathematical associations. The inclusion of such models is another way to connect the work to both the wider world and a long history of ideas. In this sense, von Sturmer is motivated by an interest in cultural interpretations of mathematics, for example, sacred geometry. Two green rubber cutting-mats have been modified by the artist – one appears to be imploding in the middle, while the other is being subjected to some form of pressure from underneath. Although we know that the world is not two dimensional, the unconscious knowledge that there are other dimensions is curiously manifested here. There is also a wooden Cuisenaire block that is precariously raised on one side by what looks like a toothpick. In both instances, objects that map space and connote order and certainty are presented speculatively. What does the viewer gain from being able to view the hidden underside of the block? We think we know what’s there, but can we really be certain? Like the multiplicity of frames and sense of expanding and contracting space, the grids and counter grids across objects and gallery function to subvert the usual definition and assurances achieved through such measures of things.

In time

There is a small but defining moment in von Sturmer’s installation documented in one video when the black ball rolls off its timber platform and drops to what must be the real studio floor. The sound of the ball dropping, repeated every two minutes or so, becomes a metre of time in the installation and momentarily transports the viewer to the other space of the studio. This sense of time and space in continuous flux and this endeavour to connect to the world beyond the immediate frame is continually reiterated in The Field Equation. Von Sturmer encourages the viewer to be an active agent in the viewing process: to look through, around, over, under and between elements in his constructed landscape. His project is open-ended and lateral in approach. Its significance lies in how it encourages us to appreciate the uncertainties of perception in the presence of time.

(1) Bruce Nauman’s studio films 1967/1968 manifests the transfiguration of the studio from mythic ‘sanctuary’ to mundane workshop. In Mapping the Studio 1 (Fat Chance John Cage), 2002 Nauman records the nocturnal activity in his studio.

(2) See, for example, Kasimir Malevich, Black Square, 1913 and Black Square and Red Square, 1915.