At a young age, inter-disciplinary artist Pavitra Wickramasinghe learned not to trust the cinematic screen. The first offense occurred when her family’s television broke, and Wickramasinghe’s father had to open the back up for repairs. Behind its plastic skin, Wickramasinghe discovered that the television was hiding what she refers to as “electronic guts.” The tiny people on her favorite T.V. shows did not live inside the black box after all. But her small sense of disappointment was overcome by an even greater sense of wonder at this peculiar discovery.
The second instance of mistrust occurred when Wickramasinghe was told that, in fact, the world has always been (quite literally) a colorful place. Although old movies appear in black and white, that does not mean that the world used to be monochromatic. Again, Wickramasinghe experienced confused wonder on this occasion.
As she tells it, these experiences did not offend Wickramasinghe, they intrigued her. She began to see herself in a complicated relationship with the moving image. Innocent, uninformed wonder was replaced by hardened, discerning wonder. It is s sense of child-like interest, coupled with a more mature, epistemological relationship to the screen that informs her work. Her latest installation, Refusing to Make a Scene, explores the unreliable relationship a viewer has with the projected image.
Wickramasinghe’s interactive exhibition, which is housed in Galerie B-312 and is a collaboration with Espace Vidéographe, is situated in a darkened room that smells of wet paint. Behind a heavy curtain, the viewer enters what initially feels very much like a cinema. But instead of seeing a flat projection screen, the spectator encounters a three-dimensional “projection volume” constructed from layers of clear-nylon and stainless steel fibers and suspended from the ceiling. Around the room, three shadow boxes are attached to the wall. Designed to look like miniature puppet stages, one box has a stage-light that constantly changes colors, one box has “floorboards” that move up and down, and one box has hand-drawn waves inside that oscillate on a motor. No real action takes place inside the miniature sets. Rather, they illustrate inaction – the quiet moments before the scene begins. This is where the exhibit’s title, Refusing to Make a Scene, comes from. Although it’s difficult to notice at first glance, the visual motifs in the boxes are projected onto the 3-D screen. Wickramasinghe intends for the viewer to walk back and forth, peek into the shadow boxes and explore all around the suspended screen in order to make this discovery.
Her intention is to endow the screen with “objectness,” as she calls it. Normally, the screen is a dispensable filter for the rays of light and dust that carry moving images. It doesn’t matter what acts as the screen, as long as an image can be projected onto it. This is why films are able to be projected onto walls, bedsheets, or sides of buildings. Wickramasinghe’s installation aims to make the projection screen an important part of the visual experience by creating something that demands to be noticed.
In her artist’s statement, Wickramasinghe claims that her work “attempts to draw the viewer in through curiosity, intrigue, and a sense of wonder while hovering between experiment and play.” The installation certainly has a magical quality, and evokes wonder beyond “I wonder what the hell that is,” but it’s not the most intelligible piece of artwork. It’s hard to “get it” if you haven’t read the artist’s statement closely beforehand, and the statement itself is rather abstract and theoretical. I spent quite a bit of time walking around to the shadow boxes and standing back with furrowed brow to observe the scene from a distance. I finally surrendered to asking the artist to explain the work in pedestrian language.
Cultural studies and film students would probably get the most out of this thematic exhibition. For those who aren’t seriously interested in the concepts, it might be a harder sell. Refusing To Make A Scene inspires interesting questions on how our experience of the world is influenced by recorded media. Yet, for a generation that grew up with the television as a central fixture in our households, the exhibit and the questions it provokes may not be so mesmerizing. The moving image is not a novelty concept for students of our age and upbringing. Wickramasinghe’s installation was thoughtful and aesthetically pleasing. But though the work presents itself as on the cutting edge of experimentation, it lacks a little bite for the 21st century viewer.
Refusing to Make a Scene is up at Galerie B-312 (372 St. Catherine O., room 403) through December 19.