Of time, space, and explosions

Curator Robert Leonard talks with Adrian Hatwell about a new exhibition linking luminaries of photographic history with two of New Zealand’s leading contemporary artists

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When a horse gallops, does it at any point become airborne? If you’re familiar with the work of photographic pioneer Eadweard Muybridge you’ll already know the answer, as the experimental photographer was commissioned to resolve that very conundrum in the late 19th Century. In 1872, the story has it, Muybridge was approached by the Californian tycoon and racehorse owner Leland Stanford to help him settle a wager: the industrialist was steadfast in his belief that, at a gallop, all four hooves of a horse will at some point leave the ground at the same time.

Not only was Muybridge able to prove his benefactor correct in his airborne assumption, the rapid-motion photographic processes he devised in order to settle the bet went on to become the foundations upon which modern cinema is built. Hence the pioneer’s affectionate moniker, the ‘father of the motion picture’.

This is one of many instances of photography, movement, and time intersecting that underpin an inventive new photography exhibition at Wellington’s City Gallery, opening in late March. The Bullet Time exhibition presents works of two pioneering photographers of movement (Muybridge included) alongside two local contemporary artists, whose works, the show suggests, descends from the historical innovators.

Robert Leonard, City Gallery’s chief curator, is the mind behind the Bullet Time exhibition. Looking for an exciting way to showcase contemporary New Zealand photographers Steve Carr and Daniel Crooks, Leonard developed the idea that, since both artists are prone to manipulate time in their works, it would be interesting to look at their recent pieces through the prism of history. And so the works of Muybridge and Harold Edgerton, an integral developer of strobe lighting techniques in the mid-20th Century, came into the mix.

“Hopefully, it makes us look at the contemporary artists and the historical artists differently,” Leonard explained. “It places everything into a history. Time — from split seconds to technological epochs — is a key theme in the show.”

The curator started with the two contemporary artists, interested in linking and contrasting their approaches. Crooks produces still and video works that reconfigure perceptions of space and time, while Carr uses slow-motion and time-lapse techniques to explore explosive changes of state. The curator was then able to add an additional depth and complexity to the show by introducing the historical aspects. Where either old or new works would have stood strong as exhibitions in their own right, combined they make for a unique opportunity for viewers to explore different perspectives.

New Zealand–born Melbourne-based Crooks has made a significant mark here and in his adopted home with his digital video and photography works illustrating the elasticity behind concepts of space and time. Playing with recorded information, he rearranges expected physical relationships: time distorts static subjects shot with a moving camera, while moving subjects shot with a static camera stretch and warp in the frame. Recently Crooks has transitioned his practice to also include sculptural art, but for Bullet Time Leonard has chosen a selection of the artist’s celebrated Time Slice video works.

“For his Time Slice videos, Crooks takes video footage and, using a computer, reorganizes the digital pixel information in time,” the curator said. “For instance, one side of the image may contain information recorded seconds earlier than the information on the other. This creates an uncanny effect, warping space-time.”

Also on display is one of Crooks’ Imaginary Objects videos, which presents its turning subject in an abstracted helix pattern, which Leonard describes as “recalling liquid moving in slow motion”.

Fascinating imagery on its own, Crooks’ work is imbued with additional historical relevance when viewed in the Bullet Time context. While it’s not hard to draw a superficial line from Muybridge’s galloping horses to Crooks’ running man on a treadmill, for Leonard the correlation runs deeper: “Like Muybridge, Crooks creates views of reality that we can’t see with our naked eye, views enabled by technology.”

This is exactly what Muybridge set out to achieve with his horse experiments in the late 19th Century, to capture something the eye, or a single camera, could not. To create his 1882 piece, The Horse in Motion, the photographer set up a series of 50 cameras along a racetrack, their shutters connected to tripwires laid across the horse’s path. The resulting time-lapse image made a splash in the scientific community, being published in journals and released for formal study. It also heralded Muybridge’s invention of the zoopraxiscope, a device for projecting the horse images onto a screen in rapid succession, which is often attributed as the first-ever moving picture to be produced, and as an inspiration for Thomas Edison’s cine-camera.

Indeed, Leonard sees Muybridge’s influence reaching as far as modern action cinema, including the motion-freezing technique from which the exhibition’s title is derived.

“Muybridge could be seen as a precursor to ‘bullet time’, the special effect made famous by The Matrix, where a bank of cameras shoots a subject from a variety of angles at the same moment, or almost the same moment,” the curator said. “These still shots are then compiled as a movie to suggest, paradoxically, that we can move around things frozen — or almost frozen — in time.”

The Bullet Time exhibition represents an exciting opportunity to view some of Muybridge’s historic equine work, and Leonard has also chosen to include motion studies of other animals, as well as less academic curiosities, such as a waddling obese woman and an amputee alighting from a chair.

“With my choice, I wanted to show that Muybridge had one foot in science and another in showmanship,” Leonard explained. “His work was always quite fanciful, witty, gimmicky. It can’t be reduced to science. For instance, I have included a study of a woman spanking a child. It has little scientific applicability.”

This feeling of spectacle masquerading as science experiment continues through the work of the Bullet Time exhibition’s other paired artists: stroboscope pioneer Edgerton and his suggested modern-day successor, Carr. Both artists harness visual technology to study the effects of frozen or otherwise manipulated time, though as Leonard explains it, the science of the shoot is simply an alibi for the real show.

Edgerton, like Muybridge, is remembered as a technical pioneer for his work in taking short-duration electronic strobe technology out of the laboratory and applying it to photography. The electrical engineer’s work in flash photography enabled him to capture high-speed subjects frozen in time. His iconic images of bullets ripping through apples and balloons, which are on display at the Bullet Time exhibition, even caught the attention of the US Government, and Edgerton was recruited to photographically record nuclear tests in the ’50s and ’60s.

And while this all might sound like fairly dry laboratory undertakings, Edgerton developed a striking, provocative aesthetic to accompany his technical advances, and many of his works now hang in notable museums around the world. He even won an Oscar in 1940 for his high-speed stroboscopic short film, Quicker ’n a Wink. It’s Edgerton’s theatrical flair, rather than any scientific acumen, that saw Leonard seek out his work for Bullet Time.

“Like Muybridge, Edgerton is a showman. His subjects are loaded: an exploded apple (tempting forbidden fruit), a ruptured banana (phallus), milk splashes (mummy). His images suggest frozen orgasms (an exploding atomic bomb). There’s a sense that we are watching a scientific demonstration, but the science is partly an excuse for blowing stuff up — it’s Mythbusters.”

Viewed through the ‘blow stuff up’ lens, it’s not difficult to see how Carr’s contemporary video works fit into the historical narrative: slow-motion videos of paint-filled balloons bursting, and dangling apples destroyed by bullets, are an explicit extension of Edgerton’s frozen impacts.

Carr, who has recently taken on the role of film lecturer at the University of Canterbury’s School of Fine Art, produces videos that play their simple action out over a duration of minutes, time stretched out to an aching crawl, anticipation of the inevitable pleasure of collision building with maddening gradualness. Though not all his featured works are slow time — one real-time video sees two pairs of hands continually stretching rubber bands over a watermelon, one after another, until the bands’ collective strain becomes too much for the melon’s shell, and the fruit erupts in a fleshy, pink release.

In an interesting inversion of the flow of historical influence, it is the erotic subtext of Carr’s works that has prompted Leonard to view Edgerton’s flash-frozen climaxes in a similar way.

“Edgerton and Carr favour penetrating, exploding, blooming, orgasmic stuff. Their images would make perfect movie cutaways to indicate sex is taking place — like those trains going through tunnels and fireworks exploding.”

In Bullet Time, the divides between science and art, time and space, spectacle and sex lose their supposed rigidity and become porous, allowing the viewer to enjoy a multitude of perspectives in a singular showing. Whether you need science as an alibi, or are happy to take a frozen orgasm at face value, Bullet Time features the appreciable historical depth and aesthetic complexity one would expect from an exhibition 150 years in the making.

Bullet Time runs from March 26–July 10 at Wellington’s City Gallery: see citygallery.org.nz for further details.

Article originally appeared in D-Photo 71 April-May 2016