09.06 – 29.07.2018
There’s an oft-cited quote about the magic of cinema from Russian writer Maxim Gorky after witnessing the early examples of the medium at a showing of films by the Lumière brothers in Paris in 1896. “Yesterday I was in the kingdom of the shadows,” wrote Gorky and indeed he was, for this was silent black and white cinema Gorky marvelled with a mixture of fascination and terror as:
“…suddenly there is a click, everything vanishes, and a railway train appears on the screen. It darts like an arrow straight toward you – watch out! It is seems as though it is about to rush into the darkness where you are sitting and reduce you to a mangled sack of skin, full of crumpled flesh and splintered bones, and destroy this hall and this building, so full of wine, women, music, and vice, and transform it into fragments and into dust. But this, too, is merely a train of shadows.”
Over the course of the last 120 years we’ve grown used to cinema and its limitations but there is a new development, a new horizon opening up for the creation of a new kingdom of shadows to potentially produce similar feelings of awe and terror in a new generation of Gorkys. Virtual Reality has increased its ability and means of mass accessibility exponentially over the course of the last decade and so it was only a short time before it would be utilised by artists as a new medium for expression.
It is the project of The Mixed Reality Workshop (TMRW) Gallery in the Keyes Art Mile to work with established artists to explore the possibilities, limits and unique capabilities of the digital world for the visual arts. ‘A Crescendo of Ecstasy’ is the gallery’s first exhibition – a collaboration between Mary Sibande and the Digital Foundry – and while it may not conjure up the shock and awe of 19th century Paris, it certainly provides an intriguing first step towards the ways in which this new technology may be used within the South African art space in the future.
The physical gallery space is occupied by a previous work – the sculpture of Sibande’s ‘purple figure’ and the hanging hordes of purple monsters created for The Purple Shall Govern. As an installation this piece already invited viewers to interact by walking through the purple monsters but now there are four VR stations installed at points throughout that provide another level of interactive experience. Viewers place VR headsets, under masks moulded from Sibande’s own face, over their eyes and are transported from their viewing point within the space to a space of simulation where the sculpture and figures interact in a short animation that you can view from multiple angles – momentarily you become the ‘purple figure’ within the installation. Thanks to your immersion, once you’ve placed the goggles on you are also part of the broader space of the installation – a participant within the physical space, strangely bobbing your head up and down and side to side as you engage in your VR experience.
The piece thus works on multiple levels of engagement and implication to provide an experience that is partly curated by Sibande’s animations and also left up to the individual viewer’s choices of interaction – which way they look, which point they choose to start and so on. While the resolution within the VR headsets is perhaps lower than it should be, creating a break between the real experience and the virtual, and some of the VR feels incomplete, there’s no denying the sense of wonder and potential that the overall experience elicits.
It’s also to Sibande’s credit that she’s chosen to attempt something more interesting than a simple transfer of her point of view to that of her audience – we may all be Sophie for a moment but we are also each our own version of the creation within the brief moment of our interaction with the work.
Much of VR’s current application has been about giving viewers an experience from the inside of conditions and events they may find hard to empathise with from the perspective of outsiders – the plight of refugees for instance, once so cringingly demonstrated by a Davos skiing obstacle course for elites.
VR as a tool may be restricted by material considerations such as time and cost, preventing local experimenters of immediately achieving the heights of something like Oscar winner Alejandro González Iñárritu’s recent refugee experience installation Carne y Arena. However with the foresight and intelligence that Sibande has adopted in her work here, there is plenty of tantalizing potential in what ever may happen next within the realms and means of TMRW’s kingdom of immersive shadows.