In the best part of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2, the last instalment of the eight part series, Harry speaks to Dumbledore in a vast white space. ‘Is this real?’ Harry asks, ‘Or is it inside my head?’ ‘Of course it’s inside your head,’ the wizard replies, ‘but why should it be any less real?’ From the mouth of a wizard in a children’s tale comes wisdom about the metaphysical problem of our age.
Like storybooks, image-based media tend to be thought of as ‘not real’. When you watch a movie you are participating in an illusion; it’s made-up, in part ‘inside your head’. With the proliferation of electronic media, the boundaries of this ‘in your head’ dimension are expanding and consequently our understanding of the real is changing. Sarah Jane Gorlitz and Wojciech Olejnik, working together as Soft Turns, create artworks that examine a key part of this phenomenon: our credulity. Their video, Enclosed (2009), dramatises this shift in the form of a question: What is real? With Enclosed, the artists suggest that representational media, in the form of film or video, is one cause of the complexity of this question. Just how real is the world created by image technologies?
We are so easily fooled. It’s a narrative Soft Turns often play out in their work. In /mm (2007) and just add water (2007) stop-motion animations move through maquettes of subway stations the artists have constructed. In Enclosed, the camera pans amongst the shelves of a library. In this work, sleek spaces cast shadow and reflect light, and as we look at these volumes and surfaces our eyes draw their own conclusions. What we see is real enough, that is, we understand that we are looking at a subway or library; we refer to the idea of these things we already have in our mind and recognize contemporary, familiar enough places, which happen (not incidentally) to be devoid of people.
In the artists’ hands, verisimilitude is achieved by a meticulous attention to detail. Soft Turns describe their work as “meditative”—this applies equally to the time they spend making their works and to the pleasure viewers get from looking at them. Scaled to the size of a hardcover book, the library featured in Enclosed is made of salvaged material from discarded books the artists found in Berlin. Through a labour-intensive process, Soft Turns have transformed the substance of books into a library, a sly commentary on the idea that books contain multitudes. That the library is a universe in itself is one potential reading of the work’s title.
Soft Turns’ use of real world source materials (as opposed to computer-generated graphics) in combination with their concern for accuracy of architectural scale and their careful attention to detail has the effect of infusing the animation with a tangible presence and gives the represented space a feeling of substance. This is a figural space, a library we might visit in our dreams. It is important to note what we see is a composite structure, made up of 12 different maquettes, each a different library. The end result is a generalized space, a Platonic Form as it were. Enclosed, then, presents ‘library’ as an idea, accessible and yet just out of reach—a contemplative entity. We recognize what we see but we will never read these books.
The world of Enclosed is not real but does exist within the real world of film. By creating a space for the purpose of filming it, the artists concede to practicalities. However heroic the effort, making art is certainly less arduous than making architecture—and serves a different purpose. In the construction of each maquette, fidelity to detail translates into the indeterminate scale of filmic space. Miniature-ness does not necessarily matter when filmic illusion sets in; it simply becomes the volume that defines the space in the film. By shooting the maquettes and editing all views into one homogenous entity, the artists create an encompassing view. However, the continuous motion within the film, and of the film itself, prevents close looking. The illusion is protected from scrutiny and so further perpetuated. This is true even though Enclosed is presented as two films on a split screen, each providing slightly different views of the library construct.
In his book The world viewed: reflections on the ontology of film (1971), Stanley Cavell writes, “In viewing a movie my helplessness is mechanically assured. I am present not at something happening…but at something that has happened, which I absorb (like a memory).”[i] Elaborating on this passage by Cavell, Rosalind Krauss notes that the viewing of a film “suspends our presence to the world it shows us.”[ii] In Enclosed, however, the artists create the world they show us; they determine the materials used in making the film as well as how it plays out for the audience. This process is co-enacted by the viewer in every instance of watching. The camera pans through the halls of a ‘library’ and we see the books on its shelves. At a certain point, the camera zooms close enough so we can see that the books are something other: cut up pages folded into dummy books. This is the reveal: the moment when the mise en scène looks fake and the illusion is dispelled. The film plays on a loop such that the world of this particular library is created and destroyed over and over again.
As sophisticated viewers, we greet each stage of this cycle with equanimity. We credit the library as real in the moments that this is possible and we accept that it’s a maquette when the cracks in the illusion start to show. Initial perceptions are followed by a reassessment. And each time, arguably, we are willing to be duped. Perhaps this is the real meaning of the title Enclosed: we live inside the world inside us.
[i] Stanley Cavell, The world viewed: reflections on the ontology of film (New York: Harvard University Press, 1971) 27.
[ii] Rosalind E. Krauss, Perpetual Inventory (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2010) 63.
This text was written to accompany Soft Turns’ exhibition Enclosed at the Stride Gallery in Calgary.
Soft Turns is Sarah Jane Gorlitz and Wojciech Olejnik. You can find more info about them here.