Goodman Gallery, Cape Town
16.08.2014 – 13.09.2014
A couple of years ago I became obsessed with conspiracy theory. Not because I believe for example that the Royal Family are secretly lizards, but because the leaps and acrobatics of conspiratorial thinking seemed interesting, and the characters invested in it had a certain stoic melancholy mixed with unbridled enthusiasm. I was particularly moved by a video I watched on YouTube – now lost to the ravages of the Internet – which featured a man showing evidence of life on Mars. He’d picked an image from the European Space Agency’s (awesome) collection of images of the surface of Mars, pushed up the contrast and brightness, zoomed in, and proceeded to give an illuminating half-hour discussion on Mars’ farms, store-houses and factories. Of course what he was actually looking at were compression artefacts; the results of an algorithm bundling pixels together into distinctive geometric patterns after an image is compressed as a JPEG. It struck me though, that he was so convinced of the illusion of photographic representation that he confused subject with the means of representation.
Mikhael Subotzky’s recent show at Goodman, ‘Show ‘n Tell’, takes this confusion as its starting point. In the work Pixel Interface, Subotzky focuses three microscopes onto the individual pixels of three different TV screens, playing three different videos. These pixels are then projected onto a wall, with their distinctive bands of red, green and blue, overlapping by a third. As the video image changes, each band of colour shifts in intensity, with a random colour being generated where they overlap. It becomes strangely abstracted, rippling with colors and intensities. Simultaneously the three videos soundtracks play, clashing and overlaying each other replicating in sound what the videos create in colour.
The work takes inspiration from Paul Sharits’ 1975 work, Shutter Interface. Sharits’ work – considered seminal by those who are interested in video art – which uses four film projectors, with the images overlapping. The projectors project random colours, which optically mix on the screen. The link between this work and Subotzky’s is clear, both works seem to foreground the actual technology of the medium and how illusions of colour and movement are produced. Sharits is, however, distinct from Subotzky in that he seems to be interested in a wholly filmic, wholly abstracted assault on the senses while Subotzky uses content in his initial three videos.
The first of these is a rather strange rendering of an experiment from the 60s, which connected retinal and neuron activity in the eye of a cat, the second is an animation from the internet, and the third is a video Subotzky has previously exhibited called Don’t even think of it (2012). In Sharits work, there is an abstracting of content, that produces an observation on the nature of technology and illusion. Subotzky is trying to invest this almost philosophical observation with content. Or to put it another way, he is trying to apply the same ‘Aha! Moment’, to paraphrase Oprah, that we get from Shutter Interface’s abstraction, to the content of his videos he is showing. That sense of insight is an illusion, and videos don’t become more significant through his intervention. I like the way this works, this particular illusion of intellectual depth produced by acrobatic metaphors and twisty associations. But sometimes it can come across as clumsy.
A case in point is Verdaille II: After Christopher Sibidla. Here, a hefty, hinged walnut frame, ostensibly based on the proportions of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delight triptych. The outer wings, when folded, form a picture of a retina. When opened, one is faced with three greenish autostereograms (a verdaille is a painting produced in shades of green). Autostereograms, also known as ‘Magic Eye’, are those annoying 90’s pictures, that when you squint, unfocus your eyes and pull a stupid face, slip from a pattern of squiggles into a 3d image with an illusion of depth. As a disclaimer, I hated these in the 90s and I hate them now, because I can never make them work for me.
With Subotzky’s, I cheated and got the gallerist to show me grey scale renderings of the original un-3d images. Sadly the images aren’t illuminating: a jester, a child juggling limbs, a portrait of Christopher Sibidla from Subotzky’s Vier Hoeke series. Rather than the playfulness of Pixel Interface, these images seem heavy-handed, and the autostereograms, rather than allowing for a contemplation of illusion and truth, seems to be over-determined. This combination makes me read Verdaille II like a set of Tarot cards, seemingly deeply significant, but essentially empty. This is, perhaps, a little harsh, as Subotzky’s other investigation into the medium Sibidla Autostereogram Cycle, is a technically fascinating moving autostereogram. It’s mesmerizing, and I imagine if I could squint properly, quite magical.
In the inner room of the Goodman, things get a little less focused. Here Subotzky shows a motley collection of images, some prints of strips of scanned in 18mm movie film, some documentary style images with light leaks and lens flares, and some ‘sticky tape transfers’, which seem to be a series of prints with visible half-tone patterns covered in sticky tape. These works operate around a similar theme to Pixel Interface, where the medium of representation is made visible. However, it feels a little less coherent. In fact, the show in general, feels like an artist finding his feet, which is interesting because Subotzky is an established voice. In this sense, Subotzky is a brave artist. He is clearly looking in a new direction, and in the current climate of market-driven art-making, artists are more and more clinging to the style and content that initially worked for them. It’s difficult as an artist, with pressure to regularly produce, to reveal the birth pangs of new work, new style and a different way of thinking. So while the show seemed, at times, flawed and awkward, it did contain something valuable.