WAVEFRONT Issue Fall 1986
A WORKMANLIKE USE OF THE MEDIUM
By CAROLYN McLUSKIE
Say you've got the millions necessary to make an excellent film:
first-rate script, best tech people, big- name stars. You really want
the job done right so you hire the most gifted painter you know to
direct. After all, if he has achieved mastery in that artistic endeavor,
you're guaranteed of his ability to pull off a dazzling film.
Does this sound like impeccable logic? No? Well, Expo art curator
Luke Rombout would disagree. Using just that logic, he hired a famous
Canadian artist who had never before made a hologram to create the works
for Expo '86's techno-art showcase of holography
Michael Snow has in the past exhibited a dazzling ability to switch
mediums with elegant results. He is a painter, sculptor, photographer,
musician and avant-garde filmmaker of note. Perhaps it was this
plasticity which prompted Rombout to award him the $800,000 contract to
mount the largest ever one-person holography show.
The result is disappointing, banal and a crushing failure in terms
of advancing public perceptions of holography as an art.
Because Snow has never worked in the medium, he chose to stay with
simple representational work, using established techniques in
reflection, transmission and pulsed holography. In his introduction to
The Spectral Image, he defends his decision in terms of the validity of
the four traditional categories of representation -- portraits, figure
compositions, still life and landscapes--which he drew on for subject
"This validity continues not only in discussing painting but
also in considering all other representational media," he says.
"...1 believe these divisions to be still applicable and useful
because the nature of the subjects themselves and our 'estimation' of
them is unchanged and thus our transactions with these subjects in any
new medium must continue to contain these facts: an object is still an
object, a face a face."
Snow's literalist interpretation of holographic possibilities
continues: "Holography is a new medium whose substance is
two-dimensional, which makes it part ol the continuity of painting,
drawing and photography. However, it allies itself with sculpture
(three-dimensional art objects) by the fact that it can present a
hitherto impossible and convincing three- dimensional illusion, an
illusion of real space."
Snow's introduction received little attention from the crowds
passing. through. They were more interested in the excellent technical
exhibit which precedes the artwork itself The development and
applications of holography were amply illustrated with a transmission
set-up, examples of different types of holograms and clearly written
text that gave technical explanations without intimidation.
The first piece, a ramp-like installation called Children's Parade,
includes 10 white-light rainbows depicting the historical development of
transportation. Each hologram is a tableau/scenario of toys--horse
soldiers, horse-drawn carriages, trains, highways, cars and planes. The
piece earned the well deserved acid comment from Vancouver Sun reviewer
Eve Johnson: "(It) runs afoul of the Basic Rule of Holography: if
it isn't interesting in real life, it isn't interesting as a
The crowds were bemused: "What is it? I can't see",
delighted by recognition: "Oh, it's a plane!" then confused
again. "Where are the objects?" one woman asked, looking up to
the ceiling for an answer.
Now that they had the hang of it, visitors succumbed to the novelty
of objects without presence and breezed through the exhibition, pausing
for the occasional comment. "I don't like that one. It's
weird," one woman pronounced, glaring at In-Up-Out Door, a pulsed
transmission hologram of five people (one of whom is Anne-Marie
Christakis) crowded behind the " glass" of a real door mounted
in the wall.
A young couple gazed down into Steamer Trunk, which contains two
reflection holograms depicting underwater scenes of fish, disembodied
feet in flippers and an oar dipping through the holographic
"water". She, confused: "I don't get it." He,
consoling: "It's just art." Whimsical use of the medium? Yes.
True to his intentions, Snow used holography throughout to
illustrate transportation-linked representational issues. Hence Jet
Engine, an exceptionally bright and crisp transmission hologram
illuminated by mercury vapour light and depicting, yup, you guessed it,
a real jet engine. This hologram more than any other drew forth in
viewers an unrestrained; urge to reach behind the plate and grab that
sparklingly close piece of machinery.
Planetscape three transmission holograms mounted in such a way as to
create a seamless vista of moonscape reaching back almost eight feet,
certainly succeeds in creating an illusion of real space in unreal
conditions. But to what effect? Visitors looked at it only as long as it
took to walk on by The holograms that entranced people the most were
those with pseudoscopic imagery, those that created a disorientation in
real space. This uniquely holographic space could have been explored
with much more perceptual and participatory results.
What Snow provides instead is a workmanlike use of holography to
illustrate his often brilliant levitation of representation and its
perceptual engagement. In the beautifully composed Still Life in 8 Calls
Snow takes holography to the limits of his artistic obsession with the
act of looking and the deconstruction of that act. Unfortunately, Snow's
limits aren't holography's limits.
The piece is a series of eight rainbow transmissions, each installed
as a separate tableau consisting of holographic tabletop, real table
legs and a chair in which the viewer may sit. The first hologram shows
conventional objects -- lamp, phone, keys, etc.--on the table. In the
next tableau, the objects have been transformed into Cubist wood. The
third depicts a Calderesque construction in wire, with a skeletal hand
reaching for the receiver. And so on, as the objects continue to
reconstruct themselves into various renderings of artistic movements.
"Oh my God," one man gasped as he sat down at tableau
number six. "The hand reaches right out to you!" And indeed, a
hand proffering the phone receiver was poised in space, two feet from
the table. "That's the closest one so far," the man marvelled
as he walked away.
It seemed an appropriate comment on this particular offering of a
perceptual experience. But Snow does not dare enough. With a theme like
transportation to work with, this exhibition could have been an exercise
in transport of the senses and perceptions into the impossible spaces
that holography has opened. The abstraction and reconstruction of space,
the existence of a relativity of spaces beyond representation, the
possibility of another category beyond figure, portrait, still life and
landscape-- that of space itself--all of these ideas could undoubtedly
have informed the works of a holographer. The medium demands such
considerations by the very materialities it articulates.
But Snow appears to have reached the limits, finally, of his own
flexibility as an artist working in many mediums. In the past he was
able to switch from painting to photography to film because his constant
theme, the deconstruction of representation, can lead to endless
structural and formal musings in those mediums. Holography poses the
question of representation itself and one cannot fall back on old forms
when attempting to explore new applications and newly created spaces.
Nor is it enough to excuse uninspired and simplistic holographic
work with pedantic statements on the "validity" of using
representational issues to explore a medium whose complex possibilities
transcend such literalist renderings.
The use of holography in The Spectral Image reminded me very much of
early filmmaking in this century. It retained the proscenium arch of
theatre, maintained the distance and two dimensionality of the stage and
treated film as a real-time medium. Once filmmakers discovered the very
different realities of cinematic time/space, they abandoned such
In the same way, art holography must move away from mere
replication, however clever, to a practice which engages the medium--and
the viewer--more efficaciously in the relativistic aspects of light and
Some distasteful pieces in The Spectral Image require special note.
These pieces refer to voyeurism and their content is voyeuristic.
Stairs, a pulsed transmission hologram, is placed eight feet above the
floor in a darkened corner. Viewers must huddle furtively against the
wall and gaze straight up to see the hologram, dimly lit by an argon
laser. Suddenly, a young man broke away with a guffaw. "Oh, we're
looking up her dress!" he crowed gleefully "Now I know why
everyone was in here!"
Did this man learn anything about the nature of voyeurism and
spectacle from this piece? Was he prompted to examine his own attitudes
towards looking and prohibition? I don't believe it for a second. Then
what statement is this piece making? Has holography reduced Snow to
tautological pronouncements on representation, voyeurism and the look?
As I watched the crowds go by, a man softly explained to his wife:
"Here, you have to go right up against the wall to look at
it." She found the right viewing position, looked up, and her face
immediately struggled to hide her obvious consternation and
embarrassment. "Oh," she said in a small, gentle voice.
"Oh, I see. Oh my" Did this woman learn anything about the
nature of voyeurism and spectacle from this piece? Did she learn,
perhaps, that even a space-age technological art like holography can be
dragged into the same sexist trash cans masquerading as critical comment
as more conventional art? And in that case, what makes this piece any
different or better than sexist art in other media?
I was angry for that woman. I don't think she was artistically
illiterate. Her resignation is symptomatic of many women who, seeing the
prevalence of this attitude in culture, simply acquiesce.
I doubt that she felt any better after viewing Vertigoing, two
pulsed transmission holograms that show two views of a woman falling
through space. She just happens to be wearing a dress, which just
happens to blow up to reveal her underpants.
A third display of this irritating chauvinism was Maura Seated. The
plaque beside this pulsed transmission advises that the best viewing
angle is from the lower, right corner, which puts us directly over the
seated woman's shoulder, looking right down her blouse at her ample
cleavage. Gee, that's holography
What is most saddening about this exhibition is the thought of what
it could have been. In the hands of a practicing holographer, the
exhibition could have exposed the viewing public to an exciting
experience in perception and spatial relativity More than 20 million
people could have begun to think about the relationship of sight, space,
thought and concept in new and innovative ways. Holography has the
capability to introduce us to new horizons in terms of how we
conceptualize and visualize, precisely because of its unique properties
to create something tangible from negative space. The most exciting
holographers working in the medium today are stretching the limits of
Imagine that $ 800,000 in the hands of a Weber, an Ishii, a
Berkhout. Imagine the impact on a viewing public of sculptural
installations and works which demand and simultaneously satisfy a
heightened sensitivity to space and perception--the experience that, in
a very small way, excited the man who saw the hand reaching towards him
in space, that impossible space that stretched his ability to
understand, to perceive and to imagine.
In a sense, Snow is not really to blame for the failure of The
Spectral Image. He did the best he could as an artist, but the demands
of the medium were simply too much for him. He was the wrong choice.
The ramifications of that choice, however, will severely limit
public appreciation of art holography in the immediate future. Twenty
million people have walked away from Expo '86 with the idea that
holography is a nifty way to make pictures of things that look like
they're really there, even though they aren't. What expectations will
these people have the next time they walk into an installation by Sally
Weber? Will they see the ecstatic vision in the work of Rudie Berkhout
or will they be trying to see "what is there", "what it
Holography will ultimately transcend the limitations imposed on it
by unimaginative artists and curators unable to relinquish past
forms--just as film survived and exceeded the theatrical structures in
which it was formed. It is unfortunate that the opportunity to introduce
a huge viewing public to the exciting possibilities of this medium was
On leaving the exhibition hall, I saw a small kiosk selling
souvenirs. There were no books on holography, no magazines, no
information on the exhibition. The only holograms offered for sale were
small pendants, bracelets and glasses depicting the usual coils,
pyramids and eyes, distributed by Third Dimension and Holocrafts. Again,
a valuable opportunity to educate the public was lost. And what could
have been a teeming marketplace of holographic art available for
purchase was instead one tiny display case of holographic jewelry.
As I waited in line earlier, a couple conversed behind me.
"What are we seeing?" he asked. "Holographs ' she
replied. "You know, like we saw on the cover of that magazine, the
National Geographic." "You mean the skull?" he asked.
"Yeah, like that," she said. Somehow, I don't think their
understanding of holography has been advanced beyond that level by The