Daniel von Sturmer. The Field Equation

Harriet Edquist

In Daniel von Sturmer’s studio is a small-scale model of The Field Equation as it has been installed in the main gallery at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA).(1) In the studio version, tiny plinths supporting miniscule projectors and other objects are interspersed with miniature figures. Looking at it from above you are reminded of the funnel-like single-point perspective demonstrations of Renaissance artists. The model thus gives some clues as to how one might view the exhibition; as a viewing device perhaps; like Alberti or Brunelleschi we could place a screen across the opening and view the whole work as a foreshortened picture behind which lie abstract principles of geometry with its grids, shifts in scale and viewing points.

The room at ACCA is glowingly white, with its black floor marked out in a grid of large squares, its black sloping ceiling widening slightly from the entrance to the end wall. Against the grid of the floor, von Sturmer has positioned his white plinths of varying heights, setting up a counter grid which appears to be a random one but which provides another kind of architecture within the room. On these are eight projectors facing lightly constructed transparent screens on which are projected a series of objects in movement. Unlike traditional perspective constructions these can be viewed from any angle as the viewer moves around. On other plinths are actual objects that bear some relation to the projected ones but are not the same. The extraordinary lightness of the room and the brightness of the screens have the effect of animating the entire space; you are made aware of the room as a field of experience; you look up as well as down or across at the screens and the objects. It is paradoxically both abstract and real. This field is a kind of landscape which you are invited to enter and wander through, contemplating its luminous outgrowths. The artist has effected a transformation of the interior architecture of Wood Marsh’s gallery space, reinvigorating the minimalist projects of Robert Morris in a way that is almost revelatory.(2)

As we negotiate our relationship to the plinths and screens there are moments of both mobility and stasis, thought and contemplation. Unlike painting, the animated screens can be viewed from a number of angles, not necessarily from one frontal position, and thus a counter proposition to the tyranny of perspective is established, re-enforcing the agency of the viewer. A subtle tension is established between the implied frame established by the room and the liberating field that von Sturmer has created within it.

Thus the idea of the frame is one of the basic structures of the exhibition. The viewing box of the room, replicated and elaborated in the rectangular viewing screens on the plinths, establishes the foundation for our acts of apprehending. Other frames are hinted at in the objects on the plinths: an open timber cube; irregular timber pieces that look like dismembered frames; a wire box-like frame.

Within the gallery’s scaled-up viewing space, the small framed spaces of the video screens repeat across the room, displaying a modest assortment of objects from the artist’s studio that slowly move, bounce, and rotate at the behest of unseen forces. The world of art presented here is a bounded world, bounded because it is embodied, and it deals with our perception and the possibilities for testing this.

On the first screen I encounter in the room, a black ball placed on a piece of sawn timber tips backwards and forwards, defying gravity – a perfect sphere pitted against the frame of the world. Nearby, a piece of dark string snakes across the bright space of its screen and, reaching the frame, falls down and as it falls forms itself into a loose and irregular ball. The anti-black ball. Elsewhere two screens mimic each other; showing sheets of colour – red and green – tentatively coming together as though to form some larger figure but eventually pulling away, only to start again. One waits in anticipation for something else to happen, but is drawn, nonetheless, into this obscure game of complementary colour. The subtle humour that often underlies von Sturmer’s work is revealed in what looks like mass lemming-like behaviour of tiny white polystyrene balls that hurl themselves across a plane of sawn timber as though responding to an urgent force. The timber, chosen by the artist because it is both ‘natural’ and also manufactured, becomes a field of operation for this strange white crowd. Through the distortion of the screen they assume an almost monumental scale – like a landscape in flux. Monumentality is achieved by tiny events through a manipulation of scale, gravity and the expectations of the viewer. Pared down to essentials of a three-minute drama.

A small blue ball bounces its way through the random clutter of the studio background, taking on an elemental form, while planes of bright colour enact some pre-Kandinskyesque experience. One screen manifests liquid form as it engulfs a hapless cube of colour in glutinous whiteness. Interspersed amongst the screens are objects resting on plinths that allude to but do not replicate the objects in the frames: a roughly composed mass of polystyrene balls glued together rather than free to run about their field; a black ball fixed on an irregular black ‘shadow’; twinned green gridded cutting sheets with spherical bulges in the centre, one indented, the other extruded – terrain of a different kind; the kinetic play of geometric form in a square turntable surmounted by a rotating disc on which rests a small red cube. All these are clues to the actions realised on the screens.

The reality of the artist’s world of the studio is maintained; its props retain their objectness (detritus of studio life as they are), and the obvious artifice of the mechanisms that animate them bring us back constantly to their origins in the world of the everyday. There is a useful tension between the art work and the deliberately unmasked means of making it by which von Sturmer attempts to dismantle the boundaries between real and imagined worlds. Like Morris, von Sturmer presents the objects of the world around him as bereft of possibility of interpretation, thus translating our will to comprehend them as signifying something else. We are complicit in the realisation of the work which relies on our expectations, assumptions and contemplative interventions for its completion. It also relies on time. It takes time to walk around the room, to look at everything in it, to think, assume and contemplate.

Much of what we look at on the screens represents the force of gravity. The explanation of how particles come together has to do with both space and time – dimensions which are activated and become objects of contemplation in The Field Equation. The tiny white polystyrene balls might be invisible particles under the microscopic gaze of the artist’s laboratory test; on a nearby plinth they are gathered together into an untidy ball: attraction and dissolution. Perhaps the most interesting screen pairing is that which faced me when I entered the room. The black ball battling with gravity; the piece of string forming a sort of loosely-structured anti-ball. On the one hand, is an object which is open; on the other, one which is closed and resistant to change.

In many ways the string is the most compelling object; unlike the little white balls rushing headlong from one side of their panel of wood to the other, the string’s action is deliberate and slow. It mimics the endlessness of the video loop in which it is caught, with no beginning or end, continuous as the universe. Perhaps thus it undoes the certainties that the Platonic solids purport to offer, alluding to some power that we don’t understand. Various ideas become enmeshed in this string. Elsewhere the work of Morris may well be a reference point for von Sturmer’s minimalism, but the string directly alludes to Morris’ anti-form projects which deal with forms determined by natural forces such as gravity. While none of the other objects in von Sturmer’s world – black ball, blue ball, white balls or colour planes – change shape through their encounters with gravity, the string does. It sets up a proposition by which we can test the rest.

String theory proposes the existence of an elemental particle that is not a point but a loop of vibrating string, a theory that if proven has the capacity to bind conflicting systems together. Perhaps, in this way, we are enabled to understand the string’s endless act of re-formation. Set against the fruitless activity of the pure forms as they tussle with materiality, the string seems to posit another way of looking at the world. Indeed, the more one looks at this exhibition the more one realises how many worlds have been set in motion, how many ideas fundamental to art and representation are at stake in the bright space of the gallery.

(1) Many thanks to Daniel von Sturmer for allowing me access to his studio and discussions of his work and to Juliana Engberg for some provocative ideas.
(2) See, for example, Robert Morris, Robert Morris: sculptures 1962-1984, Runkel-Hue-Williams, London; Lang & O’Hara Gallery, New York, 1990 and James Sampson Meyer, Minimalism: art and polemics in the Sixties, New Haven, CT, Yale University Press, 2001.