Directions: John Gerrard

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Review

of an Exhibit

by Jennifer Paper

Published on February 16, 2010

  • Description:

    As the snow started to fall, a snowfall that would accumulate to historic proportions here in Washington, DC, I took a detour on my route home from work to visit the Smithsonian Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. What better way to welcome the onslaught of a blizzard? As I wandered the halls, I observed my very quiet yet peaceful surroundings. I eventually stumble upon the John Gerrard exhibit, Directions, on the third floor. Actually, it was an intentional stumble, for I had read about the exhibit on the Hirshhorn’s website and was intrigued. Mr. Gerrard is a Dublin artist who, according to the Hirshhorn, took a series of panoramic still photographs of three different pastoral scenes in the western part of the United States. Video gaming software was then used to create video montages of each scene. The gaming software digitally pieced together the individual still shots into an animated video.

    It was Mr. Gerrard’s use of gaming technology that intrigued me and drew me in from the snow. I thought the idea of taking the 20th century art of still photography and giving it a 21st century facelift, by animating the scenes and digitally altering their appearance, was an innovative concept. By choosing to photograph scenes of prairie landscapes, with their timeless, Middle America quaintness, and coupling that with a current technology normally used for fast paced, action packed, futuristic video games, was a fascinating juxtaposition. Also, I considered the fact that museums use gaming technology as an alternative form of educational outreach. For instance, either at a kiosk or online, games encourage visitor participation by conveying exhibit information in a fun and interactive way. Therefore, it is interesting to turn this idea on its head and exhibit an artist using the very same technology as an art form, one which cannot be touched or heard but only viewed.

    As you enter the exhibit you walk into a white room, with two white tables holding white framed plasma monitors. When I entered the room the video on the first, smaller plasma, titled Grow Finish Unit, was panning along the back row of 7 farm buildings, each with a small silo. As the video moved down the row of buildings one could see details of the building, the silos, and the wide gravel path running along the row. As I wondering back to this scene several minutes later, the panning had moved 180 degrees to the other side of the barns and the view became wider, showing the row of buildings overlooking a small reservoir of water. In all three pastoral scenes the sky is expansive and as the video pans, the light and shadows change showing a daily progression. As I watched the video of this pastoral farm scene, with a vast sky and changing light, I was reminded of early American landscape paintings. However unlike a 2 dimensional painting, it is the software and technology panning in a slow, methodical, 360 degree, motion that creates depth perception, detail, and atmosphere in this scene.

    The second plasma in the white room is slightly larger and depicts an oil derrick. In this scene, titled Sentry, the panning is restricted to a 360 degree view of the derrick. Like the other two scenes, this video image is very detailed and real looking, however it is obviously digitally manipulated. This seems more obvious in this particular scene, for you are mainly concentrating on what looks like a digitized, 3D “sculpture” of an oil derrick. As the video pans, it allows you to view this “sculpture” in the round and within its original context. For instance, beyond the derrick you can see a changing landscape consisting of other oil derricks working in the distance and a prairie landscape with a farmhouse. Patience is a virtue in this exhibit, for these scenes pan very slowly. However, in this scene the slow panning is not as obvious. Perhaps this is because you are also focused on the steady, up and down pumping action and watching its various mechanical workings as the “sculpture” rotates.

    The third scene is shown in a room all by itself, which looks very much like a screening room with painted black walls and ceilings. The video is projected on a wall sized screen. This scene is titled Dust Storm and when I walked in, the video displayed a huge wall of sand, running the entire length of the scene and filling the entire sky. I was very curious to see how this scene would pan out, so I sat down to watch. As I watched, I got frustrated. I wanted the dust wall to come toward me, gaining speed as it moved across the desolate prairie, until it finally engulfed me and everything in its path. However, this did not happen. Instead the scene slowly panned the length of the sand wall and then, as in the other two scenes, started panning away from the wall into its slow, methodical, 360 degree, rotation. Eventually, the scene depicted a calm prairie and vast, clear sky. If you walked into the room at this point, you would not have known the dust wall existed.

    However, upon reflection, perhaps my frustrated reaction speaks to the point of this exhibit? Instead of being dramatically entertained, I was forced to sit patiently and watch. As I watched, I realized the capability of gaming software: to create animation from still photographs in a seamless, realistic way. For instance, it wasn’t until later that I realized the dust wall image was from a vintage photograph, which was incorporated with Mr. Gerrard’s photographs to create the Dust Storm video. If gaming technology, with its digital realism, allows people to visit and explore virtual worlds—why not create a slow-paced, pastoral, Midwestern virtual world for people to visit?

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