At the Venice Biennale, Blake Gopnik Reviews John Gerrard's 'Animated Scene' Videos

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 9, 2009

VENICE -- The second in a series of articles on the 53rd Venice Biennale.

Irish artist John Gerrard is off in a far part of Venice that few people ever get to. And he's only on the periphery of the official Venice Biennale events. But Gerrard seems to have made a splash despite those handicaps. The projected landscapes that he's showing are more compellingly real than any art you're likely to have seen, but also more complex in their view of our realities. The artist announced last week that most of his Venice exhibition will be coming to the Hirshhorn in the fall.

Born in Dublin in 1974, Gerrard now works in Vienna. His exhibition, titled "Animated Scene," is installed on the tiny, mostly abandoned island of Certosa, a former monastery site a short boat ride from the main Biennale venues. It is one of 44 "collateral events" vetted and approved by Biennale organizers, on top of the 100 or so projects on their official roster. (And then there are a host of independent shows, like a sparkling little survey of Yoko Ono's art painstakingly assembled by Washington curator Nora Halpern.)

Gerrard has taken a massive warehouse (used in winter to store boats), cleaned it up, blacked it out and filled it with three huge screens where he's projecting his works. In "Dust Storm (Dalhart, Texas)" he shows a terrifying dirt cloud sweeping across the Texas Panhandle. The scene is based on how a farm there looks today, but Gerrard's inspiration came from one of the few surviving photos documenting Black Sunday, the great storm that hit the region on April 14, 1935. "Darkest dark I ever experienced," an anonymous Dust Bowl photographer scrawled on the back of his picture. Gerrard found the image online, then set out for the United States to explore and record the landscape it came out of.

In "Grow Finish Unit (near Elkhart, Kansas)" Gerrard shows us a view of 10 computer-controlled pig barns. Each gleaming, almost unmanned structure is used to "grow" and "finish" 1,000 pigs before they're trucked off to slaughter. In the half-dead fields outside the buildings, we see the pools the waste is piped into. As we look on, we begin to feel complicit in the mechanized porkicide to come. But as one visitor to the show pointed out, we also may identify with the animals because the industrial structure we're standing in reminds us of the hogs' Stalag-like pens. (Gerrard speaks of a "fascism of efficiency.")

In "Oil Stick Work," Gerrard shows us a barn and silos where the pigs' feed is processed and stored. Perched on a lift beside the barn, a lone artist methodically rubs a black oil stick (a kind of extra-greasy pastel) onto the building's walls. Gerrard has calculated that it will take his worker 30 more years before he's finished blacking out the structure, making it register as a big box of nothingness on the sun-drenched landscape.

If only you had the stamina (and the projector bulbs) to keep watching Gerrard's work for all that time without a break, you'd get to see the scribbler come to work each day at dawn -- early in summer, later in winter -- black out a different little portion of the barn throughout the day, then leave at dusk. If you watched closely, you'd notice that not once does he precisely repeat his scribbling gestures, his muscle-stretching or his backing up to take in what he's done.

Gerrard has created his tireless worker and the rest of his Western scenes using a customized version of the game-design software called Realtime 3D, working from photographs of real places and three-dimensional scans of people. Then he gets his computer to portray his constructions under "real" sunlight that moves and changes as it should over the hours of the day and seasons of a full year in Texas or Kansas. He has crafted something that comes close to being a full duplicate -- or at least an impressive surrogate -- for the real world, as it unfolds in time and space.

Computer simulation allows Gerrard's works to plunge into the world as no standard image ever could. For his dust storm, the virtual camera that explores the scene seems fixed, but it slowly turns to give us access to all 360 degrees of horizon. There are moments when all we see is a normal rural scene. And then, as the camera revolves, the roiling cloud of dust, with its approaching destruction, slowly comes into view.

For the pig farm, the camera follows a slow walk all around the site's periphery -- about the same walk Gerrard did when he first discovered the facility by accident on a trip across the West. The camera sets out to explore a man-made horror, rather than waiting and watching in awe, as happens with Gerrard's storm.

Finally, in "Oil Stick," the camera follows Gerrard's worker bee as he slowly, ever so slowly, works his way around the structure that he's blacking out by hand. The camera is watching a kind of Everyartist -- he could be Gerrard, or us -- making a futile but resolute attempt to change the way things are, one stroke at a time.

Gerrard's reading of his work has eco-overtones, as spelled out in the exhibition's catalogue. The Texas dust storms happened because of massive overcultivation, Gerrard says, made possible by new gasoline-powered tractors (dependent on the state's own crude) and chemical fertilizers. Nowadays, petroleum-based fertilizers, together with oil-dependent cultivation and transportation, allow for computerized, centralized hog production. That feeds our insatiable appetite for cheap animal protein -- which only pumps up our dependency on oil and the size of our carbon footprint. For Gerrard, his three landscapes tell the story of oil, and the parlous state it has brought us to.

That story is powerfully felt and effectively told in Gerrard's work. But what may be most impressive is that it's told at all, in the kind of work this is. Most artists who try on the new immersive technologies end up making art that, like it or not, is mostly about the new immersive technologies. Whereas in Gerrard's very latest pieces, we see someone who gets his high tech to work as just another medium for saying what he has to say, and showing what he has to show -- but better and more clearly than he could have done before.

To see video clips from Gerrard's works, visit

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