As well as furnishing us with family portraits and a billion framed sunsets, the camera has offered new horizons and new tyrannies. Our bodies and imaginations are squeezed through the shutter, dreaming in Technicolor and diarising in wobbly Handy-cam. While the editorial codes of the movies have been naturalised, Cinemascope or IMAX coherence is a fantasy of the glancing, scanning eye. The fovea, that tiny island of focus and clarity at the centre of our vision is always mobile, at work jerkily building up a facsimile of the world we inhabit. As first Renaissance technologies of perspective, and later, the camera-eye have come to frame normative vision, other means of depicting time and space become harder to comprehend.
Jae Hoon Lee and Daniel Crooks’ works recall nineteenth Century ‘chronophotographers’ Jules-Etienne Marey and Edwaerd Muybridge (with their superimposed and ratcheted-out moments), the cubists and futurists (cramming time, movement and space into a single frame or object), and the ordinarily alien visions of the photo-finish and the medical scanner.
Korean-born New Zealand artist Jae Hoon Lee uses desktop flatbed scanner and the camera to capture images, which he stitches together as impossible landscapes, flayed portraits and kaleidoscopic nature studies. His digital prints and videos are seamless yet disjointed, blending disparate angles and sources to create images that are both highly descriptive and completely strange. Lee is an analytical cubist with Photoshop skills.
The desktop scanner’s shallow eye and the need to bring objects to it (rather than vice versa) give it similar constraints as those big old wooden glass-plate cameras. Lee uses it to record his face and the bodies of friends and acquaintances, pressed against the cold glass. Combining great detail and spectral artefacts, it provides creates a fractured image, rolled out for examination.
Space and time are compressed in Lee’s works. A self-portrait assembled from scans of the artist’s face taken over a two month period is flattened and featureless. A gob of spit, collected daily over weeks, becomes an endless glistening stalactite, underwritten by a metronomic tick. A Leaf (2003) is a montage of scanned foliage accompanied by the white-noised hiss of summer cicadas. The image is mesmerising, scrolling endlessly up the screen. As if in a rolling a time-lapse, as the leaves turn orange, brown and back to green again, compressing a year into its many-veined surfaces. Salvation (2006) is a mandala of grimy beige office keyboards, stripped of their identifying functional marks and morphed into a glyph of technological despair, a memento of obsolescence. Lee’s version of that archetypal New Zealand pastoral scene — green pasture flecked with sheep — has a strange symmetry. The huge flock arranged over undulating hills looks almost as if it’s spelling out some secret message, rhythmic clumps of grass and animals become wallpaper patterning.
Lee’s concern with how time might be compressed within a still image or reconfigured within a video is shared by New Zealand-born Melburnian Daniel Crooks. In his ‘time slice’ works, Crooks reprocesses footage of familiar scenes. The frames of the resulting photographs and videos contain information drawn from slightly different moments in time. For instance, in his video Train No. 8 (2005), he divides the frame into vertical bands progressively displaced, so that the right-hand edge is 15 seconds ahead of the left-hand edge.
Digitally recompiled, these sequences are dazzling, bewildering. Familiar scenes — a wave breaking, people moving across a city square — become alien. Forms twist and balloon out of perspective, pedestrians move forward, then backward, then forward again, as if refracted through some kind of sci-fi time crystal. Familiar subject matter, a train journey, a day at the beach, is coldly undercut as the poor brain, lulled by years of regular, well-behaved cameras, tries to unpick the images, to explain their construction and divine their logic, searching for some trick of the eye or mind that could unscroll it all.
Crooks’ first time-slice works made use of video shot of and from moving trains. Crooks describes a moment of inspiration, when he first thought of a camera mounted on a train as being like the head of a scanner, shuttling across the surface of the city, recording it. Like the camera, the train was a harbinger of modernity, and, from the outset it was a staple of cinema iconography. First agent of speed and mass mobility, the train became a key metaphor in explaining parallel realities. Think of all those unfathomable explanations of the Theory of Relativity, those eternally youthful passengers on a train traveling at the speed of light observed by aging bystanders on the platform.
Crooks’ work is, in many ways, just such an excavation and reframing of the extravagant peculiarity of our ordinary world. With their attenuated pedestrians and streaked-out backgrounds, his images have a lot in common with the photo finishes of the racetrack. The photo finish camera has no shutter, a narrow slit exposes a film strip that moves at the anticipated speed of the passing bodies, whose forms can appear twisted, attenuated, full of strange artefacts. Static objects are invisible to this camera. The photo finish is the accepted truth of a sliver of space, of what occurred there, but to the untrained eye, its images can be bizarre.
Crooks’ most recent of still images and videos, from his Imaginary Objects series (2006-7) are twisting stranded columns, spiraling into black space. Their harmonics suggest something growing or unfurling. Their rotating coils also evoke the helical slices of a CT scanner, images that are formed as the X-ray head rotates around a body fed through its orbit, building slices of scans the way a fancy kitchen gadget might turn a cucumber into a springy helix.
While Lee repurposes ordinary consumer technologies (the digital camera, scanner and image software), Crooks is fascinated with the mechanics of high-end image-gathering, with the intricacies of motion control and the worlds revealed by high speed video or camera arrays. Lee’s works, with their odd rhythms and repetitions, unpick the intricacies of surfaces, stitching them together into newer, stranger forms, while Crooks alludes to structures and harmonics behind the world of appearances. Both use technology against the grain, reconfiguring the screen to get more time and more space into their images. Their kinds of realism repurpose the very visual technologies that have blinkered our apprehension of the world around us into a means of experiencing the strangeness of the everyday.