A Scanner Darkly

Through a Glass Darkly, Charles Sandison, SB2011. Photo by Farah Yusop

by Farah Yusop

I had never welcomed darkness as much as I did when I entered into the room filled with Sandison’s work.  The black wall was splashed with flowing green digitized words, a little similar to that of The Matrix.  But these were slower, like insects, the words gathered from the wall, onto the ground and off into oblivion. It’s visually appealing and the darkness of the room prevents any form of interference from the outside, allowing visitors to enter and be part of the space.

While visitors may gaze in awe at the stream of words, the work appears to bear a deeper meaning.  Mesmerizing they are, green words of various strokes and alphabets, each one carrying with them a meaning, they flow, topple and lay upon each other with little resistance.  A Chinese character drops and lands on an English word, caught in a tango of death, they spiral into the main flow where they are met with others who share their unfortunate fate of streaming off into oblivion (off-screen). The eerie glow of the words does not offer any sense of comfort as it crawls down the wall, desperate to get through every nook and cranny.

However, that is not to brand Sandison’s work as a convulsive mess, the rigidity of the chosen medium coupled with the dynamic biological fluidity of the flow makes Through a glass darkly a successful artwork that’s able to marry rigid technicality with fluent artistry.

An area I walked by had words cluttered together, unable to fall onto the ‘river’ below, an uncanny reminder of Singapore’s overcrowding issue.   A few moments later, the words at the bottom give way, no longer able to bear the brunt of the ‘weight’ that keeps piling onto them.

As an artwork, Sandison’s use of technology and physical space allows visitors to enjoy the green words against black space, allows us to enter a created space, away from the outside. The flow of the words on ground, like a well-laid path, moves from one end to the other, tempting many to trace it as they walk across the room.

However, unlike other interactive pieces where the visitor’s presence plays a more obvious role in complimenting the installation, Sandison’s Through a Glass Darkly makes our role more subtle, almost unnoticeable. Despite being aware of our presence (through shadows on the floor), the work pays no attention to us as we waltz through the space from one end to the other.  We are part of the work but our presence does not influence it. Although our physicality only serve as a minor disturbance to the undisrupted flow of words on the walls (of the room), it is nonetheless an impressive technique of subtle exclusion which allows for the comfortable viewing and appreciating the work.

Through a glass Darkly uses computer generated visuals to represent sound, individual words are comprehensible, ‘audible’ but when the words are layered and merge, individual identity gets distorted into an incomprehensible but alluring abstract pattern.

Like the identity of Singaporeans, we are individuals, different but we flow as one. It almost creates a sense of satisfaction and nation-hood… when seen from afar. But come a little closer and you’d notice the words merely create an image, a murderous blend of incomprehensible rabble. Despite the aesthetical appeal and success of the work, the ‘message’ feels rather depressing. It seems to be saying that without a common identity, a nation can only flow so far before it comes apart and we all fall into our respective slots in society.

If Through the glass Darkly had been an intended social commentary, perhaps adding  a few more languages such as Tagalog, Hindi, Japanese, Korean or even German/French etc, may have made it more relevant to Singapore’s social situation. The four official languages of Singapore may have served well in allowing us to identify the country but not the society that resides within it. Despite that, as an art work, it is truly a captivating piece of work that utilizes the space in the Old Airport very well.

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Filed under charles sandison, Open House Notebook

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