Simon Martin at Chisenhale Gallery, 28 Nov - 18 Jan 2009.
It's amazing, really, how ambiguous a very large projection of a frog can be. For Simon Martin's new show at the Chisenhale Gallery the large, cavernous, chilly space comprises just and only that, on a screen maybe two metres long and six foot tall. But it's a subtle, unsettling piece, all the more so for the minimalism of means. If, that is, one can really call a large technicolor frog minimal.
The frog isn't really alone. Nor is it really a frog, but more on that later. Entering the space I encounter a projected image of the frog sitting on a leaf, shifting slightly between a variety of positions. These are interspersed with titles suggesting quotes from realist novels, of an uncertain time - or maybe a hybrid of times. Several descriptions are rich on ornaments: Chinese screens, fourteenth century Burmese buddhas, Hiroshige prints, Japanese Tansu.
Is the frog our Tansu? I discover later the intertitles are phrases extracted from airport novels, but the overall effect is less of particular genres of writing, than particular times or environments infected and transformed by particular details - a Victorian drawing room, say, suddenly found to contain a lap top or a mobile phone; a Japanese buddha with a games console. A soundtrack makes similar shifts between rainforest sounds and orchestral music.
What is it with this frog? It sits centre frame, seeming to pose for us, but of course not really. What seems to be for us isn't actually for us at all. THIS FROG IS NOT POSING. Each time we return to the frog this tension builds between the apparent and the actual. Is this:
Back to the orchestral music. I don't know what it was, but it fitted some vague modernist template in my mind. This implied the frog was itself a marvel of modernism. Other times, however, when image cut from intertitle to frog, the music was pure mood, Hollywood score dramatic tension, Frog Psycho. Just for a moment, then image and music were separate again. It was all sorts of fluctuations and shifts like that - involving image, music and text - that made this film so enjoyable.
I wasn't sure how far to extrapolate, which is a natural consequence of having to look at a large frog on a loop for an extended time. At one point I observed the frog as made up of several constructivist planes of colour. Now Frog was some kind of modernist housing project; Frog was utopian architectural vision, but notice no children playing on its red, reflective back.
Which was partly just free-associating whilst the frog blinked, twitched and burbled, but then I read the gallery blurb. Martin originally used a found photograph to make a photorealist painting of a strawberry poison dart frog in 1998. This current project took that engagement into the level of digital animation. As Martin observes:
A picture of a poison dart frog is something we could all be familiar with from a TV documentary or a museum postcard. An image like this becomes the start of a discussion or a springboard to somewhere else. An event or situation can also coalesce into a memorable image, one that we can try to reproduce or simply hold in our heads.
How are images used to try and direct our attention and what information unwittingly leaks out in the process? What did the image-maker not see? What does the frame exorcise? Why this particular image?
And how is it that some images remain, despite familiarity or analysis, potent or strange whilst others will slip by, barely noticed?
Maybe I'm gullible when it comes to frogs, but this one had seemed pretty real to me, if a bit day-glo. I wondered if there was some genetic engineering at work, but my knowledge of GMO's rivals my knowledge of frog colouring. All of which fed into an engagement with construction and "life" - as in "what is life?" - running through both rainforest and gallery.
That said, as I watched on, the presiding emotion didn't seem to be a cooly detached or overtly intellectual one. Many discussions of AI or human-animal relations focus in some way on consciousness, which was what the animated frog image both suggested and strongly denied: the pose that is not a pose and now is.
Or, it shifted us away from appearances towards the animation program or the code that generated the movements. That was how I came to see the language of the intertitles, too: the details of lap top and phone that entered in - viral like, gene mutations - shifting the whole constellation.
What are the consequences of all this? If you should meet a large HD animated frog here are two questions I suggest you should ask:
Are you about the future or the past? In regards to modernism: are animated HD-frogs the new stainless steel?