projection art and the aesthetics of wonder

yandell walton
Gertrude Projection Festival, Fitzroy, Melbourne
3 - 10 July 2009

In his book, Wonder, the Rainbow, and the Aesthetics of Rare Experiences (1998), Philip Fisher investigates the idea of ‘the aesthetics of wonder’ in relation to Modernist artworks. Fisher maintains that experiences of the sublime and wonder both rely on the ‘aesthetics of rare experiences’, yet he differentiates between these modes of engagement by arguing that while the sublime is associated with awe and danger, wonder is linked to experiences of surprise and delight. Fisher describes the ‘aesthetics of wonder’ as the process by which a viewer experiences an oscillating sense of awe, pleasure and curiosity when engaging with art. In his words, the ‘aesthetics of wonder has to do with the border between sensation and thought, between sensation and science’.

It occurred to me while I was roaming around the Gertrude Projection Festival that Fisher’s theory of the ‘aesthetics of wonder’ was being played out in front of my eyes. Observing the artworks on display and the people looking at these works, it became apparent that intentional visitors and random passers-by seemed to shift between moments of awe and curiosity as they navigated the space and works. Audience members would suddenly become intrigued by a projected artwork on a window, building, footpath or another space, then almost immediately start looking for evidence of how it was being produced. Clearly they understood that these projections were artworks and illusions, even the smallest children could comprehend this, but part of the pleasure of engaging with these ephemeral public artworks was working out how these illusions were being created and identifying where they were being projected from.

As in any festival, some artworks stand out more than others and in this year’s Gertrude Pro­jection Festival, which was curated around the theme of ‘dreams’, Ian de Gruchy’s, Nick Azidis’s, Lise Couchet’s, Kit Webster’s and Yandell Wal­ton’s works were highlights. Due to limited space I am going to focus on Yandell Walton’s projec­tions, partly because she was the recipient of the Gertrude Association Feature Artist Prize that was sponsored by RMIT Union Arts, but mostly because she delivered several outstanding site-responsive works including Night Walkers (2009) and 4 EVAMORE (2009).

Night Walkers (2009), which Walton created in collaboration with animator, Tobias J., embraced the characteristics of illusionistic spectacle. Part of the strength of this phantasmagoric, shadow theatre was that it was site-responsive and included elements of the surrounding streetscape in the narrative of the work. Specifically, the tree that was situated next to the Title Store building where the work was being screened, was integrated as a lead character in the spooky, fairytale narrative. As imaginary leaves gently drifted across the building, shadowy tree branches came alive and reached out across the wall grabbing at the air or at chance passers-by. Shadow figures unfolded into huge, hybrid monsters that meandered and leapt across the building. All the while, visitors were caught in a temporary fold-back loop of sen­sations including pleasure, wonder and astonish­ment, and a curiosity about how these apparitions were being formed.

Tucked away down a laneway off Gertrude Street, nine posters of the girl boy-band 4 EVA­MORE (of which Walton is a member) sat inno­cently on the wall. Emulating all the other band posters that had preceded them in this location, at first glance the projections appeared to be ordi­nary posters. Every now and then though, one or more of the characters would become animated and strike a different pose or do a little dance. The verisimilitude of this nine-panel piece was not only made manifest in the way that it imitated the form and appearance of static band posters, but also in the way that the characters performed their gender identities. In the tradition of the Kingpins and of drag kings, the characters performed differ­ent versions of masculinity for the camera, from cheesy pop idol to sleazy rake. The illusory and playful qualities of this work attracted the attention of many visitors, stimulating a sense of amused wonder about what was being presented and curi­osity about its workings.

Another aspect that struck me about the Gertrude Projection Festival generally was the social nature of roaming the streets looking at artworks in the freezing cold of Melbourne’s winter. In addition to changing the visual appearance of the buildings and streetscape, these projections also elicited social interactions between visitors to the festival. While visitors to public spaces would typically be reluctant to interact with total strangers, artworks in the Gertrude Projection Festival operated as connecting devices between strangers. This ability to generate social interactions between strangers on the street, while also offering visitors an experi­ence of wonder and curiosity, is perhaps the key strength of this festival and I for one will be attend­ing next year.