Rowan Smith's Future Shock Lost. A Student Review by Sonya Cotton
Thursday, August 28, 2008
The following was produced by a very young student, but I thought it was pretty insightful. Well done Miss Cotton.
Rowan Smith’s Future Shock Lost, held at ‘What If The World’ Gallery, consisted of sculptures, photographs and veneer pictures, all alluding to early digital aesthetics and, in turn, nostalgia for past ideals of the future. These ideals, always emerging along with technology of the time, were (and still are) translated into science fiction and escapist fantasy. All factors of the exhibition; including the bright lighting, the startling whiteness of the walls, the general minimalism, lack of personal or sentimental touches (as well as the artworks themselves), contributes to create a (retro?) futuristic atmosphere, akin to the inside of a space shuttle.
An obsession with “outer space” is often considered an attribute of childhood. “Future Shock Lost”, in this regard, refers to a deep nostalgia for childhood and/or eras long past. This concept is further enhanced in the manner in which old appliances are romantised, and revered as important ancestors to current technology, rather than “junk” to be disposed of. As technology is developed for human progression, it thus embodies (for the people of that time) ideals of what the future will be like. Every outdated appliance represents a “dead” or at least abandoned future.
Smith is strongly influenced by the presence of the digital age, as well as the forgotten technology it has replaced. As a young artist, he would have witnessed the transformation from analogue technology (such as movie tapes, and VCRs), into slick, prevailing digital technology (such as DVDs and MP3s).
The entire exhibition can be understood as a yearning to ‘escape’ the present by merging existential notions of the future with everyday domesticity. Radio Olympus Mons, a sculpture created out of vertically aligned radio aerials, is arranged in a manner so as to precisely depict the contours of Olympus Mons, the highest peak on Mars. The sculpture relates to early 1900s, when scientists bombarded Mars with radio signals in the hope of finding and communicating with alien life. This again refers to man’s almost childish desire to grasp the future, as emulated in science fiction involving space, the future and time travel.
The centrepiece of the exhibition is entitled Dot Matrix Loop'. It consists of three outdated printers, such as would have been common in offices in the 80s and 90s, hung from the ceiling by metal rods. The machines are arranged so that the long stream of paper printed in one loops through the others, forming a never-ending cycle of printing. 150 human figures are randomly printed. This contraction, like many of the other artworks constructed, is entirely impractical, entirely illogical and quite bizarre. By divorcing connotations of technology encompassing practical functions, it allows the viewer to interrogate the machine as a works of art. The illogic as to how Dot Matrix Loop functions communicates the excitement and magic the artist feels regarding retro-technology. The absurdity of the machine can be connected to the notion of creating fantastic and complicated machinery to perform simple or unnecessary tasks (eg, Doctor Seuss’ flamboyant mechanical drawings, or the American cartoonist, Rube Goldberg’s [1883-1970] drawings) and ignites the viewer with childlike fascination.
One factor contributing to the futuristic atmosphere of the exhibition, as well as proving an important motif throughout, is the lack of sound emitted from the machinery. As noise is usually associated with production and function, the silence in the exhibition further elevates the displayed technology to the status of art. Notions of noise are expressed only through visual representation, such as in Florian, Karl, Wolfgang and Ralph. The title refers to the four members of the band, Kraftwerk, considered to be the founders of electronic music. Kraftwerk exalted in technology, and believed in a harmonious union between man and machine, and created music solely by electronic means. In 1981 they wrote a song “Pocket Calculator”, glorifying and romantising the hand-held machine that, at that time, still retained novelty. Florian, Karl, Wolfgang and Ralph is a modified ‘ready made’, consisting of four pocket calculators hung on a wall. Each calculator has been programmed to simultaneously perform the function of one of the four Kraftwerk members in the song “Pocket Calculator” (One calculator displays the drum tab, one the lyrics, one the synthesiser tab and one the keyboard tab). Hung in perfect symmetry, the calculators thus refer to the perfect order that Kraftwerk relished in machinery. The fact that pocket calculators are in a sense ‘performing’ a song entitled ‘pocket calculator’ creates an element of humour and absurdity in the work.
Static Universe continues the theme of silence. It is a photo-etching of television static, framed in such a manner as to appear as if sitting in a television box. The image of static refers to the microwave theory, a theory claiming radiation from the Big Bang still exists inside static, even in the most domestic of appliances. Static Universe conveys the dazzling message that something as incomprehensible as the creation of the universe is linked with mundane everyday existence.
Goodbye Enemy Airship conveys a similar theme of silence. It is a record player wired to continuously play a record, adorned with the exact plotting of a constellation of stars. The record’s grooves have been sanded down, thus making the record spin in dead silence.
In An Extension Cord as though it Were on the Surface of the Moon, a tangled knot of wood is carved to exactly mimic an extension cord. The sculpture floats from the ceiling, as though liberated from earth’s gravity. By connecting notions of “space travel” with something as domestic as an extension cord, the most simple and thankless of appliances, Smith interrogates the response of simple technology to futuristic space travel. The wooden extension cord appears to be knotted with a degree of randomness, but the composition is harmonious and balanced in its over all effect. The two opposite ends of the plug face each other, as though poised to “fit” together, although at polar ends of the sculpture. This can be a subconscious reflection of the artist’s immense love for technology, and a desire for the primal, possibly sexual unification of plug and socket, man and machine, and the future and the present. The positioning of the plug and socket is successful in how it affects composition. Nothing in the sculpture allows the viewer’s eyes to escape the sculpture – the long tangle of wood leads the eye in a circular motion. This entrapment of the eye is significant, as is reflects on the nature of daydream and getting “lost in one’s thoughts”.
As an insulator, wood is an entirely impractical medium to carve extension cords. The love and care bestowed on the wood in order to give it a highly representational appearance forces the viewer to examine the artworks in a new manner. Using wood, a very ancient medium for sculpture, also adds a historical element to the artwork. It reinforces the aesthetic appeal with which Smith regards old technology.
Despite connotations of technology being the enemy of romance, Smith merges the two in a manner graceful, witty and creative.