Beside the White Cube

By Daniel Palmer

The characteristic gallery space today remains a controlled environment - uniformly lit, neutralised to the extreme - in which the building functions mainly as an enclosed monument for the display of objects. But it is worth remembering that this model of the white cube has a relatively short history; in Australia it is only about as old as most of the artists currently exhibiting work in them. Over the past thirty years, this space has become a familiar subject of critical discussion. Starting from the now dominant mode of 'institutional critique', a good deal of art production begins from the premise that the gallery is not a neutral receptacle for the work of art but is part of a network in which objects are actively framed and produced for reception as 'legitimate' works of art.(1)

Like many post-conceptual artists, Daniel von Sturmer utilises the space of the white cube as part of his art practice. Walking into this exhibition, at the rear gallery of the Centre for Contemporary Photography, we may be surprised by the relative lack of 'work'. Indeed, where the walls are traditionally lined with photographs or the space darkened to reveal a video installation, an absence has been forged in the gallery wall to create a kind of screen through which we can peer into the storeroom, the messy behind-the-scenes of the CCP. Just as avant garde painters rearranged the pictorial plane in the early twentieth century, the gallery is here an image to deconstruct. Its mechanics are on show. We have become voyeurs, and in the process, the gallery has become a directly activated presence in the work rather than an abstract container.(2)

Thus the purely functional relationship of the gallery to the work is exploded, and at the same time the physical space of the gallery becomes a malleable context, one material among others. Although von Sturmer is not dealing with the history of the site in any way, his architectural reconfigurations and mini-interventions into the gallery space make this work, at least in part, site-specific. Yet the focus is not CCP and its architectural quirks (such as the unmistakable fire hydrant that cuts across the space). The subject of this work is the contextual relationship between the viewer and the art event; a relationship, of course, which is mediated via the gallery-going experience.

At the core of this experiment in context as the basis of perception is a play on the expectations that a visitor brings to the gallery. These expectations are amplified via three video screens, which picture other white cubes - creating their own individual spaces and contexts within the gallery. The sequences show minimal and highly literal perceptual experiments in which our expectations are also frustrated. The everyday objects that are dropped into these non-places (a screwdriver, balloon, foam balls, etc.) are invested with expectation as a result of video's durational nature. But narrative, or cause and effect, are disrupted. Our sense of scale and of space is confounded, directional tendencies are thwarted, as gaffa tape peels upwards, paint drips up on to a palette knife, and oversized rolls of Blu-Tack fall into the frame.

These are spaces in which anything can apparently happen. A balloon is slowly filled with water until it bursts. Its slow, singular expansion refocuses attention on our expectations of what a material object can do, and its duration through time. The action is reminiscent of the nonsensical and self-absorbed nature of performance art in terms of endurance and the desire for miracles to upset our commonplace notions of what bodies and things are capable of. If, despite its absurd nature, this sequence eventually satisfies our curiosity, a series of plastic and paper bags that gradually unfold and expand from their scrunched-up pose is rather less dramatic. However, with the lack of spatial reference points, these everyday waste containers take on a sculptural monumentality that seems incongruous to what we know them to be.

Artists create effects. But almost scandalously, the objects in von Sturmer's video-sculptures do not come to symbolise anything. Rather, they seem to express a potential energy, endurance as opposed to abstract duration. Their imagery floats on the glass, context-less, with an almost magical confusion of scale and gravity. Yet, although the spaces resemble a computerised realm of virtuality, they also inspire a relation to memory, as fundamental actions and gestures distilled into videographic mini-motifs. In this sense, like the intervention into the gallery wall, the entire assemblage can be thought of as a sense laboratory.

Through habits formed in intercourse with the world, we inhabit the world. Von Sturmer produces a hyper-aware viewer by questioning the embodied habits of gallery-going and subtly transforming the habitual time of lived experience. But while Material From Another Medium is concerned with pictorial conventions of space and time - including perceptual mechanisms of fascination and attention - its interventions, modellings and simulations are formally open. A science of play is suggested, with an attendant hint of utopian aspiration. The implication is that space and time are not only qualitative, but also infinitely diversified in qualities.

(1) The classic text on the history of the 'white cube' is Brian O'Doherty, Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999).

(2) At a recent exhibition at 1st Floor Artists and Writers Space (Plane, 2000), von Sturmer carved a glass doorway through a wall. Apparently, some visitors were enraged at this affront to the gallery space as a container for the art object.