Free Roam above the Mist
September 8, 2012 — October 6, 2012
PRISM is pleased to present Free Roam above the Mist, Jonathan Zawada’s second solo presentation at the gallery.
The exhibition is centred around an expansive suite of oil paintings ― painted depictions of digital renders of the Elbe Sandstone Mountainscapes, a topography most significant as a site represented by Caspar David Friedrich in Wanderer above the Sea of Fog.
Zawada’s interest in Friedrich’s work concentrates on his employment of third-person perspective, which is the resonant concern of this exhibition. With an understanding of painting as a pre-digital example of the virtual, Zawada conceives a dialogue between three texts: Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, Friedrich Nietzche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra and the video game Red Dead Redemption. Third-person perspective is shared between these three sources, a commonality that points towards Zawada’s wider interest in metaphysics, perceptual reality, transitional landscapes and narrative agency.
To compose these paintings, Zawada creates computer renders of the Elbe Sandstone Mountains from data summarising the area. The results are digitised landscapes formed from singularly-coloured triangles. The triangular planes are threaded together to give the appearance of mountains and valleys that have evidently been digested by a computer program. Zawada paints from an image on a computer monitor, working from the unstable, flickering pixels to establish a stable, pictorial object.
Along with these capacious, geometric landscapes, Zawada presents a series of sculptures that approach virtuality from other angles: a video installation of an equivocal skyscape; material attempts to describe visual elements of Red Dead Redemption; and a cast, copper-plated head, which seems to be slipping from a geometric approximation of a man’s head, towards the more organic forms of a human face. These sculptures are attentive to the inevitable perceptual shifts and lost fidelity when translating images to objects and objects to images.
An opening reception for Free Roam above the Mist will be held at PRISM from 7 - 9pm on Saturday 8 September, 2012. The exhibition will be accompanied by a catalogue, available from the gallery.
On the occasion of Jonathan Zawada’s exhibition
Free Roam above the Mist
Virtual processes are, according to Deleuze, perfectly real, a real virtuality which has nothing to do with what we call virtual reality. And yet, because this real virtuality constitutes the nominal machinery behind the phenomena, that is, behind reality as it appears to us humans, because this real virtuality governs the genesis of all real forms, it cannot help but be related to virtual realities, not only those created by computer simulations, but also by novelists, filmmakers, painters and musicians. – Manuel DeLanda
Up to now it has been assumed that all our cognition must conform to the objects; but … let us once try whether we do not get farther with the problems of metaphysics by assuming that the objects must conform to our cognition. – Immanuel Kant
Third-person perspective is a compelling optic – where the agent observes itself in the space of manoeuvre. The third-person view incorporates the self into the landscape which it’s engrossed in, provoking a kind of alert subjectivity, where the exterior of the self is also a site of perceptual analysis. Tension is produced through this view, comparative to the tension of witnessing oneself in the world.An example of the third-person vista is cited in Caspar David Friedrich’s painting Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, 1818: the figure cast within his own gaze at the brink of psychological and phenomenological captivation. This moment in painting is an announcement of Romanticism, where the interiority of the human subject and the exteriority of the landscape melt into an indeterminate shared space. The landscape reveals a psychological depth, usually attributed to human consciousness.
On the occasion of Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, Caspar David Friedrich abbreviates the landscapes of the Elbe Sandstone mountains onto the surface of a painting. This work scripts a fictive landscape of mountains and mist out of a spatial observance of the world. (In a sense, this kind of operation is all that is possible through human subjectivity and creative response.) Friedrich’s inclusion of the figure, somehow within and outside of itself, aggravates a sensory storm; an overwhelm. Friedrich delves into romantic and elastic subjectivity, a Kantian tendency in which a physical reality can never be totally quarantined from the receptive processes of the mind. For Friedrich, the emotional substance that is produced in the human subject, as he wanders above the sea of fog, becomes the actualisation of the landscape itself.
Jonathan Zawada’s suite of oil paintings in Free Roam above the Mist, titled Sandbox Paintings, depict graphical computer renders of landscapes modeled on the Elbe Sandstone mountains, most notable for their service as a vantage for Caspar David Friedrich, 194 years in advance of this exhibition. The gathered data, digested through a computer program, seizes the landscapes in triangular planes. Zawada threads these singularly-coloured triangles together on canvas, and here the landscape appears, emollient like the paint that forms it.
Working from light emitted from a computer monitor, Zawada engages in a colour-making process of approximation, or, the dynamic dilemma of finding the equivalent colour in paint that is presented in flickering, back-lit pixels. Three smaller works, painted with a more permissive hand, move closer towards embodying the surface of a screen. The triangles do not share clear, contiguous borders as in the Sandbox Paintings. In these, there is a gentle blur, delivering the effect that ensues when eyes are focused on a screen for an extended duration. Here, Zawada refuses the ostensible crispness of pixels and re-enacts the fuzz that they often produce in the mind’s eye.
In composing this exhibition, Zawada made a concurrent reading of several texts ― the aforementioned Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, video game Red Dead Redemption and Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883-1885). All of these works assume third-person perspective ― a total picture that includes the self. Zawada coalesced these elements and used the resulting substance to make paintings and sculptures, which pass through questions of virtuality, of staged theatres of perception, of scripted space.. While the human figure, or third-person, is absent in Zawada’s work, it appears in a relational sense when a viewer stands in front of the Sandbox Paintings. This is how the artist arrived at the scale of the works: determining it to be analogous to the scale of the figure in Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, which also resembles the scale of the third-person figure in Red Dead Redemption.
LB: It seems this game Red Dead Redemption shares some Romantic ideals, so playing this game and looking at Caspar David Friedrich is a strong connect. They both propose an individual’s encounter with nature, they marry subjectivity with a splayed image. Is it the closing of the gap of the individual and the space that they’re interrogating?
JZ: The story of the game is you just appear. And that’s what I thought was so similar to Zarathustra, as well, you just kind of appear. The beginning of the game you get off a cruise ship, or a steamboat or something, and you’re in the environment. You get on the train or you get off the train then you’re in the middle of nowhere and you gradually uncover parts of the story of your character. But the arching story is that you’re an outlaw in a lawless part of America that law is coming to or has recently come to and you’re employed or blackmailed by the government to help find other outlaws.
Red Dead Redemption takes place in a gaming ‘sandbox.’ The character is adrift in a spectrum of possible actions within the fictional architecture of the game. As Zawada identifies, Thus Spoke Zarathustra and Red Dead Redemption ‘share a disjointed, almost interrupted structure. The total value and message is accreted over time in a non-linear collection of incidents and experiences.’ Red Dead Redemption is described in its literature as an ‘open world game’ – taking the structure of a wandering life that is dropped within a historical setting of unstable politics and aggravated social relations. Law is not totally imposed and the protagonist’s existence is entirely responsive to this loose composite of moral and logistical boundaries. The role of Übermensch is invariably assumed when playing video games, an idea critical when Zawada decided to connect Zarathustra to this video game. While the definition of Übermensch is somewhat nebulous, superiority and transcendence are the generally agreed qualities of Nietzsche’s concept. The proportions are greater than human without the pious connotations of a religious god. Übermensch is similar to the individual playing a videogame, where many logical rules which define the actual can be manipulated to increase the enjoyment or success of the experience.
Evoking virtuality as something offered only by machines is too slender a delineation of a much more abundant experience. As Manuel De Landa describes, the history of virtuality does not begin with the assembling of pixels, but rather the assembling of representational images in general; or, the entanglement of the material world with the imaginative strands of human perception. Brittle, frontal digital clarity doesn’t divest us of human experience, it offers another aspect on the range of humanism. The virtual is a primary relationship: as Henri Bergson attests, it connects ‘the reality of matter and the reality of spirit’. Borrowing Deleuze’s language: ‘”virtual” is not opposed to “real” but opposed to “actual,” whereas “real” is opposed to “possible.”‘ The internet is a grand playing field for this kind of connection. It is accurately descriptive, for example, that the game Second Life makes use of the word ‘Life’. Zawada is a digital native and his work carries the strong suggestion of an artist who spends a significant time in his native realm: a very real place, which is concurrently considered virtual. A more specific population could now be identified as ‘internet natives,’ a residence where interconnectivity as well as digital interface define the territory. Relatable to being a native from a geopolitical nation, the natives don’t necessarily comprehend or impart the reach of the place that they come from. (As was frequent in pre-Colonial eras, the internet is populated by people who speak many different languages and only know of the existence of a slim few of the other occupants of the territory.)
JZ: I found the sunlight, depth, height and mapped out all the terrain and then remodelled it virtually and then put the camera inside of it. But I didn’t have anything worthwhile in terms of resources to say what color the ground should be, or what sort of vegetation was there, or any of that sort of stuff. I just re-configured it with some code, some color permutations, which do essentially an even, but relatively random distribution of different types of color throughout the environment. And then the fog – depth and lighting – the lighting was oriented that way because I knew which way was North, so I could position the sun.
In his six-screen video installation Zawada is again attentive to the position of the sun and the orientation of light. Forming a horizon sculpture, the monitors are fixed at an apposite head-height with the screens facing each other in a circle, slight spaces between them to allow entry. The position of the clouds are also fixed, as the sun and moon proceed in constant transit, moving to create a fluid interplay of light projected onto the sculptural, static clouds. The viewer, the third-person of this exhibition, is invited to stand inside this view. While the light in the sky is in constant movement, the consistency of the clouds compounds the incongruity of this virtual landscape. The sky is one arena that demonstrates that time does not necessarily operate how it is imagined, stretched beyond the reaches of human perception, but relentlessly present in all lives. It’s virtually everything.
As an exhibition, Free Roam above the Mist conducts a song in participation with the epic pan-historical orchestra of virtuality. Viewers stand in front of Zawada’s paintings and experience themselves within a scale that resembles the protagonist in Red Dead Redemption, the figure of Wanderer above the Sea of Fog and the Übermensch dispatched by Nietzsche. The condition of viewing these works is tightened by this resonant scale. One participates in the image.
with Jonathan Zawada
1. Manuel De Landa, Deleuze and the Genesis of Form, Art Orbit Issue #1, 1998
2. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgement, 1790. Trans. Hackett Publishing, Werner S Pluhar, 1987
3. Henri Bergson, Matter and Memory, 1896