bill seaman: red dice/dŽs chiffrŽs

CAST Gallery, Hobart
6 - 28 July

Video art makes me nervous. Being one of the recent batch of kids having grown up with the blaring hyper colours of television culture as constant companions, I find it difficult to separate any moving image on a screen from the sitcom, short film or documentary. The comfort of a dark room punctuated with flickers of a celestial glow solicits an immediate 'tune in' and 'tune out' response. Eyes glaze over with dazed adoration and any accompanying sound fades into a meditative hum. The moving image lulls. Seeing this in a gallery captures me unaware. It is small wonder that I initially described Bill Seaman's recent video installation as little less than 'absorbing'.

Originally a work commissioned by the National Gallery of Canada as an electronic exploration of the impact of Stephane Mallarme's poetry, 'Red Dice/Des Chiffres' first appeared in Australia as part of the 2000 Adelaide Festival. Resurfacing in 2002 at CAST Gallery, 'Red Dice' was the second of three major video based installations held at the gallery over the winter period.

Presented in both English and French, 'Red Dice' is cinematic in scale and experience. Covering a large part of one wall, the projected images beamed out in front of two oblong leather seats positioned like alters on which the viewer could sit and worship the signals of a deity. Brushing aside a black curtain to enter, encompassed by darkness and the promise of being alone in a room with a comfy chair and a video screen, added to the intense voyeuristic pleasure of viewing Seaman's sublime work.

The smooth texture of a male voice resonated in rich monotone and recited sketchy phrases of poetic abstraction. Inspired by Mallarme's poem, 'Un Coup de des', Seaman's words and images hinted at the dreamlike, surreal elements of chance and the endless limits of possibility. Like a free fall of spoken word and abstract visuals, the beauty of Seaman's 'Red Dice' was made evident in the juxtaposition of multiple images and the seemingly random collection of unpredictable, non-linear syntax. Restless clicks of a mechanical rhythm were overlaid by images of moving, ticking, spinning machinery, sparse domestic interiors and the immensity of natural phenomena. Chaos never seemed so graceful.

Close up views of the metallic, dusty innards of machines tapping and turning out their wares were slowed down to a visual amble as the voice spoke of 'the paradox of physics’, 'navigation' and the 'engine of erotic maneuvering'. In pure poetic serendipity the spoken text brought a strange kind of metallic sensuality to the grinding and steaming of otherwise mundane machines. Each tiny component moved and clicked into place, becoming part of a mysterious whole which fuelled itself on languid poetry and the deep tonal hum of an underlying soundtrack.

Moments of serene lucidity were presented in images of nature, birds flying over the pounding waters of a waterfall or a still lake flanked by a forest of majestic trees. The gentle crossover between the industrial intricacies of machinery and the awe-inspiring allure of the unbridled energy and power of nature was reminiscent of David Lynch's esoteric creation, 'Twin Peaks'. Mystery, loss and absence were themes explored by Lynch and accentuated in the series by hearty helpings of lingering, sweeping shots of dense forest, mountainous terrain and the inner workings of the town's sawmill. The appeal of Lynch's direction lay in the consistent suggestion of absence, of something missing or askew, even in the midst of industrious activity. 'Red Dice' was similarly seductive. While the spoken words and images were mechanically sumptuous, the meaning of them was subject to the roll of the dice. Cart wheeling into the random realms of chance, comprehension was swimming in a 'sea of probability' and at the mercy of 'a circulation of states'. 'Red Dice' was anything and everything all at once.

Intoxicatingly poetic and visually resplendent, 'Red Dice' was a fitting homage to the brilliant literary innovations of Stephane Mallarme. An installation in which, 'space itself truly spoke, dreamed and gave birth to temporal forms', Seaman's 'Red Dice' excelled in technical skill and succeeded in visually recreating the lyrical beauty of endless possibility.1 Denying the viewer a clear-cut interpretation, 'Red Dice' posed a risk of remaining abstruse to those unaware of the connection to Mallarme. Although an interpretatively demanding work, 'Red Dice' was a cinema sized injection of electronic elegance and a lesson in the sensuous subtly of seamless editing in image, sound and text.

notes: 

1. Paul Valery on 'Un Coup de des', cited in Victoria Lynn. 'Red Dice/Des  Chiffres, Bill Seaman' catalogue essay, Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia, 3-26 March, 2000.