Clearings: Some Times and Spaces by Daniel von Sturmer
by Justin Paton

1. Weighing Worlds

For two weeks in March of 2001, pedestrians on Melbourne’s Queensberry Street had a chance to watch something quite remarkable – a whole room tipped off-balance by nothing weightier than a glass of water.

This event took place inside a gallery called Penthouse and Pavement, and its author was Daniel von Sturmer. Science Fiction consisted of a two-minute video back-projected on to a small perspex screen that was attached along its right edge to a wall. Peering in at night through the gallery’s bay window, passersby could watch the water slowly tipping to one side and then the other of a glass that remained perfectly horizontal. A modest defiance of gravity, it yielded a beautifully large effect. After looking for a while, it seemed less that the water was rolling in the glass than that the room was rolling around the water, like a ship in a very even swell.

That’s leverage. By harnessing the force of our expectations, von Sturmer tipped the gallery off the level. And by momentarily altering the gallery’s equilibrium, he sent us back into the world freshly balanced. This might be called the von Sturmer effect. From his early architectural adjustments to his recent video works, which seem less to be projected on to their chamfered wooden screens than sliced right into the air of the room, von Sturmer’s works have achieved maximum transformation with minimum interference. Beginning in small objects and modest phenomena – water in a glass, a scrunched plastic bag – his art sharpens the senses, gives shape to unseen forces, and leaves the perceived world looking clearer and stranger.

2. Making Space

Objects were elsewhere in von Sturmer’s early shows. Since the work consisted mostly of things subtracted, it was easy to wonder what was being ‘shown’. The art world has no shortage of artists who claim to ‘engage’, ‘critique’ or otherwise ‘intervene in’ the gallery space; critic Jerry Saltz calls the tendency ‘installationism’. But a word as flavourless as ‘intervention’ fails to evoke the headclearing things that von Sturmer did in – and to – the postgrad project rooms and Melbourne alternative spaces in which his first shows happened. Floating a screen in front of a view (Mediation, 1998), putting a slice of glass where a wall once stood (Plane, 2000), or opening a view through to a gallery’s backroom (Material from Another Medium, 2001), he didn’t make things to look at so much as things to look around or through: blinds, windows, lenses. Thus framed and focused, mundane aspects of the artwatching experience took on a new and almost uncanny clarity: the angle of the light, the volume of the room, and the way your own place in the space affected all this from moment to moment.

It makes sense that von Sturmer soon moved video to the heart of his practice, because the medium gave him a way to take a sample of one space, shape or reverse it like a physical thing, and then place it somewhere else. It was a way to enlarge and enrich his perceptual equations without actually taking up more space. The resulting artworks are enjoyably tricky to name. Films of sculptures? Performance records? Animated paintings? Still lifes with life? The catch-all term ‘video art’ seems less useful by the day and is certainly too baggy to describe von Sturmer’s fastidious work. It is hard to think of an artist less impressed by the medium’s dominant convention – black-box theatres with leaking soundtracks and projections so large that you can count the pixels. Von Sturmer’s idea of video is far nearer to the one-on-one scale of painting, in which he trained, than to the engulfing, wide-screen installation. Presented as objects among other objects in clean, well-lit spaces, his small wooden screens are perfectly practical devices that also look quite magical, like patches of light lifted off the floor and stood on their edges. They treat viewers not like gawking consumers of a supersized cultural experience but rather patient and attentive collaborators.

To put it differently: what matters is not the quantity of space an artwork takes up but the quality of attention it earns. Von Sturmer’s chance to put that proposition to the test came in the group show New 03 in 2003 in Melbourne’s Australian Centre for Contemporary Art. A rusty, steel-clad mountain of a building, ACCA boasts aggressively angled interior spaces that seem designed to provoke if not actively upstage artists. Working on the principle that big problems often breed concise solutions, von Sturmer chose to work in the zone of maximum architectural hauteur, at the hangar-high far end of the main gallery. The work he put there was part test-site, part magic lantern, and it ‘tuned’ the room with pitchperfection. Consisting of five small luminous screens on a large, tipped white table, The Truth Effect was above all a marvellously efficient device for drawing viewers in and slowing them down.

Seen from a distance, the table rafted down toward approaching gallery-goers like some cross between a science-fair display and science-fiction control deck. But the grand long view surrendered precedence, as you approached, to the intimate view on each glowing screen. On one screen, von Sturmer tossed disks of coloured paper on to a turning white platter to create a wobbly vortex. On another, a white polystyrene ball wandered up a white wall, as if buoyed on unseen currents. And on another, a roll of tape, a sanding block and a cup patrolled the floor, walls and ceiling of an apparently unmoving white box. A kind of contemplation machine, The Truth Effect not only provided a lot to look at but made you conscious at every moment of other viewers engaged in their own looking elsewhere round the table. And since ACCA is a gallery that tends to make its viewers feel dramatically reduced in size, it was impossible not to feel an affectionate kinship with von Sturmer’s modest objects as they tested the physical limits of their own white cubes. Whenever an object bested gravity, you felt lifted too.

3. Testing Things

The rooms where von Sturmer constructs his pristine scenarios are seldom white or pristine. At the business end of his big studio in Dunedin (located, appropriately, in what was once a theatre), it looks as if someone has raided a stationery cupboard to build an amusement park for ants. I can see a polystyrene cup perched on a ball of Blu-Tac, a sheet of black paper snowed with hole-punch confetti, a wooden ruler with a Dayglo cardboard star taped to one end, and an amiable chaos of erasers, glue dispensers, masking tape and paper clips.

These objects inspire optimism. They promise a future in which things are bound, pinned up, paper-clipped and finally sorted out. But what von Sturmer likes even more than this promise of order is each object’s tendency, once unwrapped, to breed its own brand of sweet sculptural disorder: the way clean strips of Blu-Tac turn into makedo stress-balls; the way Post-Its migrate from their Juddlike stacks and lie round an office like Dayglo leaves. Screen Test (2004) was a showcase for this kind of desktop entropy. All around you in the show, objects collapsed and digressed with precision timing.

Hollywood filmmakers conduct screen tests to gauge the on-camera presence of actors. Von Sturmer performs his tests on objects, and pointedly leaves his purpose undeclared. The white light and occasional glimpse of the artist’s fingertips suggest that the paperclips in Sequence 4, for instance, are part of an experiment conducted under laboratory conditions. But this air of seriousness is undone by the whimsical modesty of the forms (they look like the 3d doodles people fashion while thinking of something else) and also by the distractingly beautiful way their shadows twist and turn beneath them. The unfurling streamers in Sequence 3 likewise seem intended to demonstrate some principle of perspective, but they wobble, lurch off-course and flop to a stop in wonderfully unsystematic ways. As so often when objects behave in apparently human fashion, these videos approach the territory of the clownish, although von Sturmer’s is a droll, precision-timed kind of clowning that’s nearer to Jacques Tati than, say, Jim Carrey. Call him a technician of the tenuous.

Part of the pleasure of these videos lies in imagining the figure of the tester — the behind-the-camera presence who sets up his dry experiments but keeps stumbling into moments of comedy and suspense. Together the videos offer a deadpan portrait of a reticent artist at play and in this respect they refine a tradition of in-the-studio video that goes back to William Wegman and Bruce Nauman in the late 1960s. On one hand, these artists had inherited immense new permissions about where art could be (anywhere) and what it could be made of (anything); all the props of tradition had been kicked out. But still there was this endeavour called ‘art’, and still the artists found themselves sitting in studios, like laid-off employees turning up at the old workplace. So they turned their cameras on themselves and began to play with whatever was at hand, in a blunt and almost stoical attempt to find out exactly what it was that an artist did: Nauman covered himself in paint; John Baldessari tuned some glasses of water; and Wegman told little stories to the camera and goofed around with his dog.

The speckle and blur of these early videos is a long way from the space station whiteness of von Sturmer’s, but they all offer a vision of the artist as a philosophical tinkerer — someone who picks up bits of studio detritus and auditions them for roles in future artworks. Masking tape, pencils, rulers and sanding blocks are among the things that art is made with, after all; and the humility of these materials allows him to model, even to toy with, some weighty art-historical precedents. By softly flipping through a ream of coloured paper, he creates a readymade sequence of sublime abstract paintings — Rothko on a rolodex. He considers Richard Serra’s mammoth steel slabs using nothing heavier than a slice of black cardboard. His opened paperclips replay Sol LeWitt’s famous ‘Open and Incomplete Cubes’ at tabletop scale. And monuments don’t come much humbler than the drinking straw that turns at 4 rpm in a recent sculpture, a minor object that exerts a major pull on all the space and attention around it. This ability to bring history into play without overplaying the cleverness or betraying his materials is a von Sturmer hallmark. Along with artists like Vincent Fecteau, Tom Friedman and Martin Creed, he’s part of a loose confederacy of contemporary artists whose aversion to overstatement results in work that could be called provocatively humble.

4. Unmaking Magic

The word ‘magical’ comes up a lot around von Sturmer’s work, but it’s a strictly day-lit and materialist magic that he practices. As befits a filmmaker who usually works with modest budgets and a crew of one, he has brought off some of his most memorable illusions using a special effect that is free to all: gravity. In The Truth Effect, there’s a delightful moment when a plastic cup rolls across the floor of its box and, with an effortless ‘click’, vaults on to the adjoining wall. In a sequence from Material from Another Medium, a heavy round of gaffer tape hangs skyward, tethered to the floor by a strip of itself. In another, a smear of orange paint stirs, gathers, and takes off, beautifully dramatising the stickiness of gravity. And in the key piece from Screen Test, projected on a right-angled screen, four objects slide, bounce and roll from side to side as if under their own propulsion, slipping effortlessly round the corner each time.

There’s an instructive contrast between sightgags like these and the spectacular defiance of gravity in video installations by, say, Sam Taylor-Wood or Bill Viola, where bodies levitate indefinitely or plunge upward through darkness. This kind of ‘magic’ involves a tradeoff between wonder and credulity. We’re awed, and in return agree not to inquire too aggressively after what caused the awe. In a video installation by von Sturmer, however, the lights are on, we can see the projectors whirring away, and it’s always simple enough to work out how the trick was contrived (he makes no secret of his methods, which involve lo-tech rotating sets). Some of his most provocative videos are those that refuse to deliver the expected voila; things flop over, or run out of puff, or fail to spring back in the place you expect them. By rights, such delays and anti-climaxes ought to leave a viewer feeling short-changed. But, given time, the refusal of plot or undoing of illusion develops its own vivid, positive character. The white box turns into a stage where your own expectations are tipped and tested as surely as any of the objects on view.

It’s not hard to see in all this two differing approaches to art. ‘Magic’ in its accustomed sense involves the keeping of guild skills and secrets: the artist as a dispenser of recondite wonders. By contrast, von Sturmer’s brand of magic showcases phenomena that are given and available. The wonders are already there in the world, he seems to be saying — it’s just a matter of considering things from a fresh angle. This sounds like a modest proposition, but its implications are large when viewed against a mediaworld that values size, spectacle, and stupefyingly expensive effects far above adroitness, economy or improvisation. As Clive James has written of today’s digitally enhanced blockbusters, ‘The hero couldn’t be doing that, even if it looks as if he were, so the only point of interest is how they worked the trick.’ Von Sturmer, by contrast, gently jolts us into awareness of the special effects that are always at work around us, and crucially shifts emphasis from the budget and star power of the maker to the acuity and resourcefulness of the viewer.

You might imagine that an art so opposed to the spectacular wouldn’t stand a chance of survival outside the white cube. Yet one of von Sturmer’s most resonant screenings took place in a space loud with traffic and advertising. Made in his characteristically small-scale way, with a document shredder and reams of paper, Horizontal Hold is by a very long way the largest work he has made. During the 2004 Biennale of Sydney it shone from inside the Museum of Sydney on to the windows of the building’s boxy northwest corner. Walking or driving at night through the central business district, you could look up and see tendrils of shredded paper crawling from right to left around this black cube, then beginning to catch, kink and beautifully tangle. It was as if, below office towers that contain who knows how many tonnes of ‘sensitive documents’, one of the buildings had begun to dream of destroying its own contents. In an environment where so many surfaces are up for sale and crammed with come-ons, von Sturmer held the attention not by adding information but shredding it. And although the piece didn’t ‘say’ anything (a humility about ‘saying’ characterises von Sturmer’s work, which is filled with many unused pencils and blank pieces of paper), it felt especially pointed in mid-2004, not long after news broke of all the incriminating documents that the Enron corporation had shredded. That’s public art at its best: formal transformation opening on to a large horizon of content.

5. Clearing Time

As I write, my desktop looks like a refuge for the bits and pieces that didn’t make it into von Sturmer’s Screen Tests. An inventory would have to mention earplugs, a nest of rubber bands, pens from places I’ve never been and a twist tie bent into the shape of a duck for the benefit of a notvery- impressed one-year-old. Certain objects gravitate to each other, like the opened-out paperclip (there’s always one) which is clinging to the handle of a pair of scissors that have for reasons beyond me become magnetised, and which are themselves impaled in an eraser covered in Biro cross-hatching. Writing is meant to be an internal, cerebral experience, but I’ve often wondered if progress on the page or screen might better be measured materially – in the number of tormented paperclips or vivid-marker doodles that one generates.

And perhaps this, alongside the more predictable art-critical reasons, is the reason that von Sturmer’s small loops of time are so calming and enthralling. Objects such as paper clips and erasers are souvenirs of the contemporary workplace and its endlessly chased deadlines. From narrative films to television dramas, the moving images we see most of likewise cling to this model of time: a movement through dramatic turbulence towards an inevitable (and so often disappointing) payoff. But von Sturmer’s exhibitions model an experience of a different shape and pace. To approach The Truth Effect or Screen Test is to enter a spare and almost tactile soundscape of clicks, hollow rolls, topplings, soft knocks, and elongated pauses. You take in the events screen by screen, each one setting up expectations that the next bends or stretches. Is the space of perception shallow or deep? Smooth or erratic? What kind of gravity reigns there? Paused in front of one screen, there’s always another waiting for your attention. And because each loop is of differing length, the sound- and lightscape is never twice the same. The papery rustles and sudden whooshes of air (balloons) all add to the sense that you’re inside a breathing system where one change triggers another.

The comparison that needs to be made here is not with other video installations or even with painting but, oddly, with certain meditative gardens. This may sound implausible, given that there’s no greenery in sight, but the likeness lies rather in the spacing and timing. Like meditative gardens, von Sturmer’s exhibitions are formal but openly structured spaces that one can step into at any point and at any pace, and within which there are places to pause and contemplate the role that small things have in larger cycles — and by extension in the world at large. Finely balanced between duration and drama, nothing and something, they fulfil John Cage’s description of art as a practice ‘to sober and quiet the mind, encouraging a state that is spiritual in nature but at the same time connected to everyday life.’ I can imagine von Sturmer balking at the ‘spiritual’ in that phrase, and perhaps even finding its secular relation ‘meditative’ too high-minded for an art that takes so much pleasure in the pratfalls of office stationery. But there is no mistaking the contemplative and courteous impulse at work in von Sturmer’s art. Setting objects in motion and withdrawing from the scene, he clears space and makes time for us.

Justin Paton is Curator of Contemporary Art at Dunedin Public Art Gallery and for the past five years has been Editor of the journal Landfall.