The smallest thing, and everything
Geraldine Barlow


How much of everything can be contained in the smallest thing – a paperclip perhaps; or a sponge; an eraser; light or its absence; black or white; fullness or emptiness? What is a thing, or nothing, anyway?

These questions have been of interest to Daniel von Sturmer for the past decade, and are explored in the work Screen Test 2004, first shown at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery, New Zealand. This work of quietly shifting simplicity and kaleidoscopic complexity welcomes query, exploration and supposition. Von Sturmer constructs his works from the careful observation and editing of both space and the digital/temporal trace. Some of his earliest pieces were architectural, for instance Plane 2000, where a section of the gallery wall was replaced with glass to reveal an anomaly in the depth of two adjacent rooms and a ‘secret’ corridor. Conversely in Mediation 1998 sections of wall were inserted in front of the windows in such a way as to frame a narrow and uniform gap, darkening the room and transforming the familiar view into an almost sublime formal meditation upon space, light and darkness. In this way von Sturmer’s work has a kind of consciousness-shifting effect; an outward flow of impact from the artwork itself into our broader apprehension of the world. The absence or presence of a wall is carefully calibrated to explore the nature of our perception and construction of the world. Simple materiality is used to articulate the cultural and conceptual complexity, and beauty, of this shared world of the subtle and ever-shifting signifier.

Presented as an installation upon the floor, Screen Test offers a Lilliputian landscape of projectors, screens, DVD players and cables. Technology is not concealed; as with von Sturmer’s broader palette of materials, it is presented simply and humbly. In this knee-high realm, the play of the material, sculptural and spatial encourages exploratory forays between the camps of the real and the imagined: cables run like rivers, projectors take on the guise of a miniature architecture and the glowing screens suggest we are as out of scale as giants at a drive-in. The materiality of these elements is both deadpan and careful, even caring. They are both what they are and more than they are. Here, all creation is carefully considered.

In the title of the work we encounter our first play of words: a metaphor, a pun or double entendre, a promise of semiotic agility. For Screen Test offers us ‘real’ screens as well as a series of screen tests, or auditions for objects, in which four individual video sequences unfold in a separate time and space – a place apart, governed by the artist/creator of this universe of material experiment.

In the first sequence, a pair of screens is presented as a neat right angle. We see five objects of different sizes and weights roll within a white-cube stage, traversing the L of the screens. Upon this bent stage, a roll of paper moves from right to left, followed by an orange sponge, a green pencil, a rubber band and finally a white eraser. Their hesitant journey across the synchronised screens is given added weight by the right angle presentation. As we study the movement of the objects, we come to realise that, despite the apparently stable screen horizon and our own feet firmly planted on the gallery floor, we are observing the effect of gravity. In this space apart, the camera moves in unison with the stage or set. Perception and imagination are required to untangle the dynamics animating this work.

Despite its mystery, this simple mise en scène is neither a trick nor a one liner. For in each movement to and fro are small differences and rearrangements, a playing out of possibility and variation within the abiding determinants of weight, shape and form. There is beauty also, of both difference and sameness: two white shapes; something floppy; something hard; the round paper roll that sets off first; the pencil with its smoothly decisive slide; and the slightly shambolic sponge possessed of an optimistic bounce as it hits the far wall and rebounds with a quiver.

In this universe of small journeying characters, it is easy to move beyond metaphor into the anthropomorphic. In Daniel von Sturmer’s world, objects have a gait and demeanour: a showmanship, or shyness. He encourages us to feel empathy for the denizens of this miniature universe, moving invisibly in time with abstract rhythms and forces. The mysterious interplay of fate and the innate governs our own lives also. There is a saturated humour here, in the compounding sense of inevitability, as we laugh and note that which is true to type.

There is also the choreography of suspense. The second video sequence is a study in black and white. We see a studio light, such as that used by a photographer, in front of a white wall. The quality of the white changes, growing in intensity and then yellowing abruptly as the light is switched off. The ensuing blackness is suddenly revealed by its edges as a turning piece of card, which we realise is rotating within a white space. And, in the next metamorphosis, black becomes white as a black balloon shrinks, only fully recognisable in its final moment of deflation.

In the third video sequence, rolls of bright paper tape enter the screen. Each roll unfurls in graceful loops and arcs, is still a moment and then disappears, with a lingering lightness. Each ‘character’ has its own timing and composition, the green is contained and quickly runs its course, the pink pushes deftly into the distance before looping lightly and returning to centre stage.

In the fourth and final video sequence the artist places an opened paper clip onto a rotating plane of white. Until the form of the paper-clip sculpture occupies this space it is infinite and abstract, without scale or horizon. It is impossible for us to read depth or surface. Perhaps it is immensely deep, or conversely a blizzard of whiteness pressed claustrophobically to the screen. As the paperclip study spins slowly before us we realise how complex it is in space, as if walking around a sculpture in a museum. We are able to experience every angle, then, a hair’s-breadth moment of invisibility, before thumb and forefinger descend again to place the next paperclip monument before us.

We cannot guess at what drives this rotating white plane, which remains inferred but for the stain of a paperclip-shadow. The act of placing each paperclip is not concealed, however, nor is the hand of the maker, which is massive in this universe of the miniature. In place of an invisible coming into being, this is a truly deadpan comedy, a readymade from the desktop, standing – perhaps – as a cipher for creation, artistic and divine.

In Screen Test there is a constant movement between stage and screen, set and model, actual and hypothetical. Von Sturmer’s ontological models remind us that whilst our knowledge of the world is expanding it is also relative and in a constant state of flux and renewal. Hence, as we watch these small screens and try to anticipate what will happen within the frame, we must also consider what may be happening beyond the frame, beyond the limits of our perception.