you're not thinking fourth dimensionally
Jaki Middleton & David Lawrey
My approach towards You’re not thinking fourth dimensionally in the New Acquisitions exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney was preceded by the sound of something being wound-up like clockwork. As I moved closer to the darkly clad installation object, which assumed the dimensions of an elevated coffin and the appearance of a dry aquarium, the noise grew louder. Presently the apparition of a bone white, miniature train emerged from the grey entrance of a tunnel, crossed the coffin’s internal landscape of felted hills and dead trees and flew through the back of the gallery wall.
While this encounter was devoid of the gooey ectoplasm and charged atmosphere that one is supposed to associate with spectral phenomena, Jaki Middleton and David Lawrey, with signature dry humour, contrast the coldly scientific nature of moving-image technologies with our perception of the otherworldly. You’re not thinking fourth dimensionally recreates the smoke-and-mirrors parlour trick of Pepper’s Ghost which was used in theatres in the 19th century to conjure images of the dead. A close relative of spirit photography (in terms of its ability to fool the easily fooled), the invention of Pepper’s Ghost was an antecendent of early cinema and has formed part of the kinetic installation repertoire of this Sydney-based artist collaboration.
Middleton and Lawrey make works for a gallery-going public who have always had a relationship with the dimensional and temporal illusions offered by cinema, TV and video. Through these (non-supernatural) mediums, we can see the dead come back to life, again and again. As reanimators of the cinematic, Middleton and Lawrey (re)create intimate viewing apparatuses and three-dimensional, soft environments in which small actions in two-dimensions are ceaselessly replayed. Disturbing the social contract of audience complicity in cinematic illusion, the artists wrestle images from the flat cinematic into contained portals of the real.
You’re not thinking fourth dimensionally poses a playful challenge to expanded thinking, both in terms of the Euclidean geometry to which it refers and a sense of the world beyond the spaces and objects that we can readily hear, see and feel. The runaway train—a harbinger of technological progress and therefore a potent motif in silent film of the early 20th century—is simultaneously present and absent in this installation. Its repetitive motion presents a temporal agitation whereby it is always seen to be moving forwards while always returning to the beginning. As the artists have written, the work “creates a narrative of progress that only moves forward through a repetition of the past”.
Bec Dean is a curator, writer and visual artist. She has been Associate Director of Performance Space since 2008, with previous curatorial positions held at the ACP, Sydney and PICA, Perth. Her art criticism and reviews have featured in numerous publications.
MCA Collection: New Acquisitions, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, 28 July 2009 - 31 January 2010
Jaki Middleton & David Lawrey
When did you meet and what initiated your desire to work collaboratively?
We met while both studying Photomedia at Sydney College of the Arts. Later on we began assisting one another with individual projects and over time this process evolved into collaborative projects.
Your work expresses a fascination for early innovations in moving image technology, from the thaumatrope, the zoetrope, praxinoscope and early theatrical ‘special effects’ like Pepper’s Ghost which is employed in this work. What motivates you to research and recreate these inventions?
These devices break down the visual plane and reveal aspects of the way in which we see and perceive. There’s a dichotomy between the essential simplicity of these devices and the complexity that viewers often assume: people look for the ‘trick’ or technological mastery, but really most of the magic takes place within the viewer’s head. We’re interested in how these objects can act as a metaphor for perception and the way that vision and meaning is constructed, both on a physiological and broader cultural level.
Your kinetic objects and installations often reanimate and recontextualise scenes from popular culture and narrative cinema, particularly excerpts and images from science fiction and horror films made in the 1970s and 80s, when you were both children. Can you talk about the influence of these films on your practice?
The aesthetic of these films is certainly a strong influence, particularly the visual techniques used to depict time-travel and the supernatural.
At the core of our practice is a preoccupation with basic themes like time, memory, and death. Films which also engage with these themes offer us a way in that is both playful and personal. For instance, although Kubrick's The Shining is a terrifying horror film, from a contemporary perspective the added layers of history and nostalgia attach themselves to the material; iconic scenes break away and separate from the narrative, transforming into elements of cultural history that reference the present in addition to their cinematic origin.
I feel a displaced sense of nostalgia when viewing your works as a result of seeing these reanimated fictional characters through the portal of remade obsolete technologies. How do you think your work engages with and disrupts the cinematic memories of your generation?
By restaging, merging and manipulating these cinematic memories our works mimic the process of remembering, in which an original experience is re-imagined and shifts with each remembering. As a result, over time memories and fictions blur together and we like to think of our work as opening out and examining that process.
Your most recent moving image installations trap diminutive characters or animated objects within an inescapable artificial environment or frame. What role do you think that scale plays in your work?
Working on a small, contained scale allows us to create immersive environments that reduce the barrier between the viewer and the work, while at the same time elevating them to a god-like perspective. This perspective creates a sense of control that allows the viewer to feel that they are part of the work.
Do you have other exhibitions planned for this year?
We are currently working on a new piece for an upcoming exhibition, Reality Check: watching Sylvania Waters, at Hazelhurst Regional Gallery curated by Daniel Mudie-Cunningham. We have another installation, I would turn back if I were you, showing at MOP in Chippendale until August 30. It’s an exhibition curated by George and Ron Adams called Three of a Perfect Pair that looks at the work of artist collaborations. Aside from that, we aren’t planning too far ahead as we are undertaking an Australia Council studio residency in Los Angeles later this year.
Images and video courtesy of the artists