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Cinerama at SAM

The following reflection was originally published on the now-defunct

Cinerama: Art and the Moving Image in Southeast Asia at SAM at 8Q probably ranks among of the ‘smallest’ shows in the museum’s history. Ten artists, presenting only a total of eleven works, is included in this show. The bold move is actually one of its greatest strengths, as the powerful and concise selection captures and does not weary the visitor. Each work is allowed to linger vividly in the mind’s eye long after leaving the exhibition.

The word ‘cinerama’ is a portmanteau of ‘cinema’ and ‘panorama’, and is the name of a trademarked curved projection method from 1950s America. Cinerama™ looks like an ancestor of our modern day curved screen televisions, except that technology then did not really achieve the seamless all-round effect that the creators imagined it to be. As expected from expensive and bulky technology from that period, that Cinerama™ was never really successful or widespread, unseen outside of America. Cinerama™ does not make an appearance in this exhibition, which explicitly looks at Southeast Asia. Rather, it appears in a de-materialised form, suggesting that some Southeast Asian artists are imagining a filmic and immersive experience in ways that resonate with the dreams of Cinerama technology.

Artists have been challenging the two-dimensional nature of the image even before phenakistiscopes (a kind of image windmill on paper that is used to produce GIFs controlled by hand) were around. Trompe l’oiel, for instance, is historically a marker of artistic distinction. Once the technology for moving images was invented, the battle toward three or more dimensions became more pronounced. The moving image emancipates visual illusion, allowing them to escape the frame. Through careful planning and imagination, it is possible to create illusions that escape the frame, like with IMAX 3D films.

At its simplest, the moving image is produced by flashing similar images in quick succession in front of the viewer, each with slightly displaced elements. The rate of change creates an illusion of movement. That is the basis for stop-motion film, a technique Victor Balanon employs in The Man Who. For part of the video component, scenes are painstakingly pieced together by hundreds of photographs that are carefully composed to suggest that objects can move on their own, cubes can melt into the floor and fantastical shapes can emerge from the walls. In another scene, concentric lines articulate the vision of a corridor as a figure runs down it, a clear nod to films like Thaïs (1917), which was made by Italian Futurist Antonio Giulio Bregaglia. In bombarding his viewer with feats of real impossibility and manipulating the visual field, Balanon’s installation is sometimes literally vertiginous. The undulations within the video seem to reach outward into the real world, integrating with the ostensibly static painted mural on the connecting wall and reflecting on the ground in front of it. Visual knowledge, historical research and painstaking labour come together in this work that might leave viewers with their sea legs.

The audience of cinema has always had to give it the benefit of the doubt, consciously suspending real life in order to join the world of make believe. A completely darkened space, oversized projections and a quality sound system are some of the ways that a film theatre has traditionally upgraded the audience experience.

But of course, the audience does most of the work. They must consciously decide to engage with the screen. These criterion become strange when stepping into Hayati Mokhtar’s Falim House: Observations. The set up of this ten-channel video installation is reminiscent of a real-life role playing game. Falim House, like any affluent mansion from the early twentieth-century, is full of nooks and crannies. Hayati recreates the maze in the gallery, burying projections in caverns, placing partition walls where they are not expected to be and misaligning the walls just enough to deny any line of sight across the whole installation. It is a mnemonic space that cannot be seen at once. However, there is a sense that Falim House cansee its intruder. The superficial stillness in the video is shattered slightly with the passing breeze. The sound of a man whistling comes from a speaker that cannot be found. A shadow seen in one channel seems is fleetingly detected in a neighbouring one. The distance governed by the length of the camera’s shot cannot be traversed. But in moving, searching and listening, Hayati gives her audience a sense that it could be traversed, that we could have a physical relationship with what we see. This becomes an instrument of horror. In the search for Falim House’s centre, the low-hanging projectors, the source of the visitor’s voyeuristic gaze into the House, begin to look like instruments of surveillance, ready to enact a cold, mechanical turn that focuses their lens upon the criminal trespasser.

In coinciding the cinematic with the real, the work lingers in the mind’s eye, a fantastical dream. Korakrit Arunanondchai and Alex Gvojic’s installation, There’s a word I’m trying to remember, for a feeling I’m about to have (a distracted path towards extinction) extends the world depicted in their video into the gallery space. As the video progresses, different aspects of the installation is highlighted. The fur-clad walls when chewbacca-looking protagonist collapses in a barren land. The tar-coloured, trash-sprinkled flooring when the diver explores the sea floor. The bleached denim cushions when boy child treks through the dark urban landscape and dances. Simultaneity, already acknowledged in the title’s claim to ‘distraction’, stutters. The video becomes the key that unlocks the installation’s potential, which the visitor is free to explore. Perhaps more interestingly in this installation, the gallery space has been cleaved into two. A section of the gallery remains pristine, untouched by the installation. Three benches are placed in this space, allowing visitors to watch other visitors on the cushions watch the video. When, at one point, ‘Chewbacca’ talks about the emptiness that lies behind, cushion-visitors might feel tempted to look back at the physical void behind them and ponder about the cinema that the video had awakened them from and the cinerama they had been awakened to. Cinema, the fantastical and the dream are but mere categories that dissolve when the real begins to be regarded as an imitation of the cinematic.

Cinerama™ is a culmination of a certain set of ideals and desires that is also discernible in groups and communities outside of America. While some Americans had decided that Cinerama™ is an appropriate proposal, the specific place, space and perspective have allowed for a various and different proposals elsewhere. According to Cinerama, some Southeast Asians have seen the fourth dimension integral. The successful execution and intimate details of each work might also suggest that in our geography, the cinematic could be aligned with everyday life. They are infinitely absorbing and challenging, inviting deeper immersion and thoughtful contemplation of the everyday experience.

Cinerama: Art and the Moving Image in Southeast Asia
17 November 2017 – 18 March 2018

Exhibition site here.