Touch

Sophie Coombs and Anne Rowe
Artspace, Sydney

Over the past few years one of the most defining features of almost all exhibitions dealing with technology has been a celebratory focus upon computer wizardry and dazzling spectral effects. Seduced by dancing lights and luminous images, these exhibitions invariably reduce technology to a state of functional and instrumental equipment. In stark contrast to this critical reduction, however, a recent exhibition at Artspace in Sydney attempted to re-engage technology as something more fundamental and intrinsic to our life world. In short, as an integral part of human experience in general and contemporary artistic practice in particular.

Structured around the theoretical premise that technology forms an essential component of what the German philosopher Martin Heidegger once described as our 'being in the world', Touch combined the curatorial vision of Abby Mellick with the work of Sydney installation and conceptual artists Sophie Coombs and Anne Rowe in a fascinating creative triangle. In addition to this, a catalogue essay by English writer Sadie Plant usefully served to locate the exhibition within a broader international context: more specifically, within the context of contemporary efforts to 'feminize the digital arts'.

Derived from the Greek work techne meaning 'to make', the modern word technology is commonly used to refer to the knowledge and practice of applied sciences. Taking a more ontological as opposed to literal approach to the subject, each of the artists viewed the technological as an intrinsic (as opposed to extrinsic) component of their individual processes of art-making. In Rowe's work, for example, technology appears in her use of prefabricated icons and objects while Coombs employs an idiosyncratic logic of construction and reconstruction. In each case, however, their work combines aesthetic concerns with larger issues that transcend the objects themselves.

In an attempt to negate the logic of representation, Anne Rowe's work manipulates surfaces and reflections. In Voulez-Vous? (Would You Like?) for example, the artist employed two large black sheets of perspex elevated on the wall slightly above eye-sight. In the bottom left hand corner of the first panel an inscribed text was scratched over and illegible. Denied access on both a visual as well as textual level, the refusal of this work to reflect anything (alluded to in the oblique title) suggests a retro-minimalist obsession with the evacuation of content and meaning from the pictorial sign.

A similar interest in deception as opposed to depiction characterised another work by Rowe entitled Caput Mortuum, a Latin expression meaning "a worthless residue". For this work Rowe deposited a small ceramic angle, like some strange error in a landscape, inside a glass covered display case attached to a wall-unit. As the distilled residue of a minimal artistic process, this site-specific installation suggests a meditation upon issues of surface and depth. Yet inverting the traditional relationship between the two, Rowe employs the glass surface as a barrier to interpretation, rather than a screen for inscription and reflection, in an exploration of the purely abstract properties of made objects and forms.

In stark contrast to Rowe's silent and shimmering surfaces, Sophie Coombs' work is characterised by an exploration of the everyday material level at which technology reshapes life experience. Collectively entitled Wome people love television and watch it all the time. Other prolp, this apparently nonsensical installation, laid out in fragments across the walls and floor of the gallery, examined the multiple ways in which technology has transformed our social and cultural infrastructure along with traditional conceptions of time, space, knowledge and subjectivity.

According to Coombs the apotheosis of the technological transformation of contemporary life is the televisual (television, film, photography and video). As the repository and translator of individual and collective cultural memories, the televisual both captures and captivates, records and recalls life experience. At the same time, however, it also has an organic presence of its own, actively defining and shaping (as it is defined and shaped by) cultural values, opinions and desires. As Paul Virilio and Sylvere Lotringer have perceptively pointed out, the issue is not only one of how to use contemporary technology, but to realise that one is also used by it.1

Constructed around the idea of a deeper existential relationship between the human subject and the made object, linked by a condition of touch, the work of Anne Rowe and Sophie Coombs offered a radical re-engagement with the technological as far more than just inanimate source of shiny equipment and dazzling effects. Viewed as an essential component of our coming into individual life experience and collective social action, this exhibition explored the multiple ways in which technology modifies and transforms the world which is both constructed and revealed to us through it.

notes: 

1. Paul Virilio and Sylvere Lotringer, Pure War, Semiotext(e), new York, 1983, p.78