A black ground is interrupted by a single vertical line from which is suspended a circle increasing in size until the ground is completely white, but then interrupted by a single dark line from which is suspended a growing darker circle. This is the visual effect on Daniel Von Sturmer’s video of alternately pouring paint into pools, one on top of the other.
Likewise, the effect of coloured acetate squares dropped onto a white field, forming new colours where they overlap, or different-sized cubes of blu-tak dropped within a pale field falling and sticking where they land but also occasionally sticking to each other at odd angles (a strange combination of things both yielding and defying gravity). Simply but meticulously staged, these ‘studio bound experiments’ in material potential render some striking moments on video.
Other video works involve out of frame manipulation, rotating sets or cameras, or playing things backward or at angles, like the model of a Penrose impossible square resolving once every 360 degrees, or a glass of water that lists left and right though the glass appears not to move, or a green balloon filling with water in a stainless steel sink till it explodes, or an un-moving hand drawing a perfect circle, or brown string randomly looping but then – the sequence set in reverse – precisely unfurling, or a bunch of while polystyrene foam balls rushing forward and backward along an flat plank of timber, or a pointer prodding and searching out other forms on a desk top.
A camera pans static assortments of paper clips, plasticine, cut coloured paper, small balls, rubber bands, a retinue of performers on this tiny stage, enjoying all sorts of complex potential relationships.
They are all single takes on video looped by Von Sturmer (though there may have been many takes not selected) but the orientation of the camera, macro-focus, close cropping and aperture, as well as the seamless edit turn these ‘modest phenomena’ into beguiling, dramatic illusions, which, like a Necker cube, pop in and out resolving appearances first one way then another.
On the one hand they are simple physics experiments conducted under limiting conditions but they are also a kind of kinetic, time based formal abstraction; in equal parts Julius Sumner Miller and Hans Hoffman. And the combination is so precise and clever and seamless, its effect is frequently put down to ‘magic’.
But it’s not just the rotating set, or the up-side down playback, but the reduction of reactants to basic line, shape and colour against high contrast single-colour fields which highlights – even elevates – the physical properties and behaviour of the ordinary things that Von Sturmer places in front of the camera.
Certainly Von Sturmer has avowed his interest in “the process and materials of modernism and minimalism” and Hoffman, the father of American abstraction, described the elemental relations between figure and ground and the need “to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak”, which has really set the tone for all formalism since.
In Von Sturmer’s work the ‘push’ and ‘pull’ of the picture plane (ostensibly a two dimensional dynamic) is translated into the slow reveal of these 3 to 4 minute video loops where top, bottom and sides, front and back as well as the live action within the frame are held in some kind of pleasant torsion as we watch. Our eyes keep moving within the arrangement from shape to shape, from putative front to putative back, searching for the real ground to orient the scene.
There is undoubtedly a visual pleasure in considering these beguiling arrangements, working them out, and concluding which effect or contrivance is responsible for the basic illusionism at work. And yet at the moment the illusion is revealed – the moment at which we realise we are looking at things differently now than we had been 3 minutes ago – we can begin to see ‘the back of our own eyes’; we catch ourselves looking while looking.
Sometimes the contents of these videos are displayed alone on a plinth, in emphatic stationary counterpoint, as if to testify to the extraordinary effect of camera, lights and action on these ordinary materials. From smaller shelves to larger entire gallery installations, these pieces are like film sets, assorted and variously scaled mis-en-scene, awaiting the camera.
They are also Fellini-esque reveals, where the illusion of Von Sturmer’s filmwork is exposed at the margins by a slow pan out to include edge of the plinth, backdrop, a recessed wall cavity, a purpose built room with angled walls, rotating device or platform and so on (in Fellini it was boom mics, clappers, first assistants and scaffolding).
Thus Von Sturmer charts the image in situ, from its origins in camera to its arrangement in galleries, paying equal attention to the pictorial and architectural spaces in which we apprehend these elementary actions. Across the works, there is a vertiginous rush generated through telescoping in and out of these tableaux; in one moment zooming out to the wide shot revealing the room and the gallery, the next zooming in, pulling close focus to study the toppling blocks, the unfurling plastic bag, in short, the denouement.
Indeed, the exact moment is critical to Von Sturmer, since it’s this dramatic apex, which energises the rest of work, from architectural intervention to cabinet or plinth design – in and of themselves these elements simply ramp up and down to the ultimate pitch-point when things are impossibly suspended. These ‘improbable stacks’ are the distillation of Von Sturmer’s whole enterprise, where the up-scaled momentarily teetering and veering piles of objects are rendered just before a calamitous toppling.
Through Von Sturmer’s work we begin to understand the influences acting upon the appearance of things to us, the unseen forces and determinations out of frame, out of sight. “Our minds go out through our eyes to wander among objects and consider the world including our selves in it” (to paraphrase Maurice Merleau-Ponty). Net phenomenological result: we feel enlightened, the works seem profound and reward this deeper contemplation, like various forms of a mantra that focuses us on the material truth of the world.
In short, the experience is revelatory, a simple instance of our growing consciousness of the things we are looking at. It might even seem transcendental and could be what Von Sturmer calls “another [possibly higher] order of significance”, in which the micro-physical relationship between things assumes a universal significance, since ultimately his small scale observations are a measure of the forces acting on all phenomena.
In some works, it’s the birth of symbolism, even pathos too. When the motionless rubber band begins to tremble and distend, as if moving itself up and to the right of screen with a will of its own, struggling against gravity and unforeseen circumstance (the camera and scene are in fact tilting), before ultimately – tragically – toppling, it describes the same arc of melodramatic narrative which runs through film, opera, fiction, theatre. It’s a reduction of drama to constituent essentials, and it leaves me close to tears.
And all those wooden cubes, which seem to shuffle endlessly around inside a box looking for a way out, are on the one hand a kind of Brownian motion or convection, but on the other a study of hapless community; a nest of social relationships ultimately confined and doomed by which ever god is off-screen shaking the box. We too are observable phenomena to someone.
Daniel Von Sturmer is represented by Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne and Sydney