Welcome to the Review Repository - an archive of reviews that were originally published in the Saturday edition of the Taranaki Daily News from September 2007 – April 2008.

The reviews were written for a general audience and therefore tend to be descriptive and educational in focus.

Saturday, 5 April 2008

Curios Contraptions

one of Leonie Smith's Transducing camera obscuras

We create illusions so that we can understand reality. Our concepts of time, the calendar, including all taxonomies and measurements no matter how sophisticated are simply conventions that humankind has created. These conventions help us form a perception of reality that can be cut up into fragments and understood through abstract symbols. Reality, however, is far more complex and will always elude our attempts to rationally understand it. The revelation that reality is influenced by our perception came to be understood by Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. Werner Karl Heisenberg, a quantum physicist studying molecular particles in the 1920s, came to the realisation that the more accurately one attempts to observe or measure an object, the more an object will be physically affected by the observation. This and other investigations of the quantum sciences have had a profound and muddling impact upon our contemporary understanding of reality. In light of such theories it could be said that reality is so far beyond our sensory perception that the closest understanding is through philosophy, mystical belief and altered states of being.

Reality, and our uncertain perception of it, is the conceptual terrain of Taranaki based artist Leone Smith. Despite only recently graduating from art school Smith’s work has received much attention. In 2006 Smith exhibited a large installation at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery and is currently developing projects with organisations in the US. Including a research fellowship in San Francisco followed by a project at Burning Man - a renowned art festival held annually in the Nevada desert. Since art school Smith has investigated the potential of optics to explore the notion of flux - an alternate state of being where reality is perceived as a constant flow without being reduced or rationalised. This investigation has led Smith to the creation of numerous camera obscuras that resist convention, are aesthetically perturbed and have a strange malignant function.

Camera obscuras, also known as pinhole cameras, use the refraction of light through a controlled aperture - usually a tiny hole rather than a lens - to produce an image the same way our eyes do. Traditionally camera obscuras are geometric boxes or small buildings that are carefully designed and constructed to get the most precise image. Smith’s camera obscurers, however, are oddly shaped and constructed out of poor materials such as papier-mâché, cardboard and modified found objects. They also produce soft blurred images rather than a clear cut photo like picture. What’s more is that Smith designs them to be worn like a helmet rather than a static object. If there is any sense of tradition in Smith’s work it is found in her disquieting aesthetic. Painted black, roughly crafted and sometimes incorporating parts from functional objects – these wearable devices appear as though they were dreamt up by a mad 19th century inventor. An aesthetic that entices curiosity but at the same time makes one question the accuracy or agenda behind these odd contraptions.

This dated pseudoscientific aesthetic also reflects the experimental nature of Smith’s practice. Usually an artwork is designed to be exhibited the same way every time. Smith’s work, however, is reused and modified each time as if part of an ongoing series of laboratory experiments. She has also been known to change the contexts and situations that the camera’s appear in. In her exhibition …version 1 … at the Govett-Brewster Smith created a strange labyrinthine environment. In this instance her wearable camera obscuras were used by gallery visitors to navigate a maze of light and fabric. Other experiments using the same cameras include a disorientating installation of glowing words and in another instance where Smith staged a tour group outing into a park.

Smith is somewhat reserved about the purpose of her camera obscuras but what she does let on is that each one is designed for a unique use. However, instead of the camera providing the viewer with an experience Smith believes that the opposite is actually the case – claiming that the visitor entertains the camera obscura. This twisted relationship makes sense when you experience one of for yourself. Like a parasite that feeds off its host Smith’s wearable camera obscurers befuddle the human participant’s regular view of reality and disconnect visual perception from the rest of the body. A wondrous but uncomfortable experience that fulfills the cameras designed purpose.

Smith’s more recent series of camera obscuras that she calls Transducers - a device that converts one form of energy into another – create even stranger relationships with the viewer. The Transducers function by converting the light within the camera into heat which can then by sucked up though a tube. This function however, is very puzzling since cameras are all sealed up so we can’t see the image that is projected inside. Our only experience of the image is by sucking on the tube. So instead of inducing a visual spectacle these works present invisible possibilities - a more dubious and cunning tactic that either dupes us like a placebo or entices our imagination. Like a type of strange fashion designer Smith has created Transducers for various types of people and occasions. Including, a range for newborn babies, a high healed shoe ensemble and a wheeled walking stick creation made for promenading along the seaside.

Either presenting a baffling stream of blurred light or a psychological puzzle - Smith’s bizarre contraptions induce alternate perceptions that lead us to question our notions of what is real.