On cold July nights, Adelaide audiences flock to an extraordinary sound and light festival.
The main poster of the Illuminate festival is Wisdom of AI Light, an immersive digital performance in which the public discovers art mixed with science at breakneck speed. Dubbed a “digital renaissance”, it’s much more than that.
Held in a large pop-up space, creators are Istanbul-based studio Ouchhh who explore the limits of what machines can do.
Spurred on by Alan Turing’s Computing Machines and Intelligence (1950), a host of digital artists explored how machines replaced the artist in thought, artistic creation and music.
Ouchhh Studio takes the digital art revolution to a whole new level. Art history is a dataset from which their scientists, animators, and AI designers create algorithms that produce stunning visual effects that dance across the walls and floor of space.
From time to time, the enigmatic Mona Lisa (1503) or her Vitruvian Man (1490) by Leonardo da Vinci appear, as well as fragments of the Sistine Chapel ceiling by Michelangelo (1508-12) or Pieta ( 1498-99), to dissolve into particles.
In the second part of the performance, the creators turn to the writings of Galileo, Einstein and other physicists. Snippets of their text and scientific symbols dance across the walls and floor, dissolving into computer language or abstract designs.
The partnership of the Ouchhh studio with scientists from CERN and NASA is revolutionary: their multi-sensory performance is a visual treat.
Read more: Friday Essay: Rise of the Art Machines
Painting trees with light
In the Botanical Gardens, Montreal’s Moment Factory presents another nighttime show, Light Cycles. The laboratory of the Moment Factory is the forest. Trees, plants and built structures become their canvas.
An organized route through the gardens takes viewers on a journey where light, music and video interact. The everyday world disappears and nature comes to life.
At one point, you move through a maze of intersecting laser lights. At another, lights dance on giant trees accompanied by deafening music that mimics the fantasy-laden monster trees of children’s stories.
Further on, a choreography of lights dancing on a lake performing movements rivaling contemporary dance. The finale is the Changing Light Parade at the Palm House.
This deeply performative, immersive and experiential walk through light and sound is quite breathtaking.
Illuminate Adelaide also illuminates buildings across the city after dark. The facade of the Art Gallery of South Australia hosts Vincent Namatjira’s Going Out Bush.
The gallery’s classic columns become gum trees in the Hermannsburg style of watercolor painting made famous by Albert Namatjira, while Vincent weaves in and out of the country in his great-grandfather’s signature green truck.
The imagery is, on one level, pleasant and folkloric. At a deeper level, it is about rewriting colonial history. The scene takes place in Indulkana, the artist’s home in APY (Aṉangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara) lands, where the local football team is playing and the camp dog roams.
Colonial power, symbolized by the images of Captain Cook and the Queen, becomes First Nations power. The heads of Captain Cook and the Queen are replaced by those of Vincent Namatjira: nocturnal dream or more?
Read more: Terra nullius interruptus: Captain James Cook and the absent presence in First Nations art
Studies on melancholy
Within the walls of the Art Gallery of South Australia, Robert Wilson: Moving Portraits is exhibited. Although not part of Illuminate Adelaide, he also focuses on light, sound and movement.
Wilson’s fascination is stillness – and movement within stillness. His 23 video portraits carry the teasing title of “moving portraits”.
Wilson is a major figure in the contemporary art world, best known for his collaboration with Philip Glass in Einstein on the Beach (1975), and more recently for his radical new interpretation of Handel’s Messiah (2020). In his highly innovative work in the performing and visual arts, reductive forms of space and time are always in play.
Some of Wilson’s subjects for his highly staged theatrical pieces in his Moving Portraits are actors because they are trained to hold a pose. The scenes created are frequently steeped in art history, cinema or literature, as in Lady Gaga: Mademoiselle Caroline Rivière (2013).
This video portrait, which is inspired by the famous 1806 portrait of Jean Auguste-Dominique Ingres, reproduces his costume and pose perfectly, but for Wilson it is a study in melancholy. The young Caroline Rivière died a year after Ingres commissioned portraits.
On set, Lady Gaga held the pose for seven hours. The video portrait, which loops over several minutes, is intensely still and subdued. A tear intermittently runs down Lady Gaga’s face. A snow goose occasionally flies overhead to allude to the brevity and beauty of life.
Each video portrait of Wilson is associated with objects from the gallery’s collection, for this one it is a Roman balsarium (c.50-200 CE), a delicate glass receptacle for collecting tears of d barely 13 cm high.
Wilson sees his portraits as opening a psychological window for the viewer, the balsarium is eerie to complete the effect.
In another intense portrait of expatriate Chinese writer and Nobel Prize for Literature winner Gao Xingjian, Writer (2005), space is compressed. The portrait focuses on his cropped face. Every line of the face and every pore of the skin is visible.
Eyes closed, apart from the slight flicker of the eyelids, the face becomes a record of struggle and success. Text in French by Jean Paul Sartre, slowly lines his face as he reads, in English, “Solitude is a necessary condition for freedom”.
The video portraits extend to animals, the human-animal bond particularly fascinates Wilson. This includes the intriguing Ivory, Black Panther (2006) which Wilson and his technicians filmed for 23 long minutes in a domestic setting, the panther’s eyes trained on these intruders.
The union between humans and this potentially dangerous animal is palpable: stillness is both enervating and its asset.
Other moving portraits include a softer, more vulnerable Brad Pitt, Actor (2004), wearing only boxer shorts and socks, standing in the rain and holding a water gun, a reference to Alfred Hitchcock.
Wilson works collaboratively. It starts with its subject and extends to its creative team who, after the theatrical filming, spend another two weeks editing and sound mixing. Each portrait is accompanied by a soundtrack.
When watching Wilson’s video portraits, time slows down; the slight movement in the imagery, like Winona Ryder’s feather on her swinging hat in Her Intriguing Actress Winona Ryder (2004), requires special attention. Viewers in the exhibition space are subtly introduced to Wilson’s mantra of “movement in stillness” in this deeply affective series that is poetry in motion.
A truly exquisite exhibit.
Illuminate Adelaide is in multiple locations until July 31. Robert Wilson: Moving Portraits is at the Art Gallery of South Australia until October 3.