Avoiding mechanical overload
John Gerrard uses showy technologies to animate, not overwhelm, his work

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 5, 2009

All art talks about its techniques: Every painting is partly about paint; a carving always speaks of chisels.

The risk with today's showier technologies is that they can come to be the only thing their art's about.

So what about works that criticize our machine-driven society? Do they have to use technology to draw attention to its effects, or should they absolutely avoid high-tech, to escape charges of hypocrisy?

That is just one of many issues raised in three recent animations by John Gerrard, a 34-year-old Irishman now based in Vienna, Austria. Gerrard uses video-game software to craft stunningly convincing virtual worlds, including the three that go on view Thursday in the latest "Directions" show at the Hirshhorn Museum.

"Dust Storm" is projected huge on the rear wall of a gallery, and shows the pancake-flat plains of northern Texas. A camera circles the middle of a field, and as it performs its eight-minute, 360-degree pan of the horizon, a dust storm comes into view. First it's just a tiny glimpse of cloud at the edge of the projection screen, and then the moving camera shows it to us as a sky-blackening tempest, which then disappears as our view circles back to showing blank horizon.

The piece is based on Gerrard's own photos of a real spot in rural Texas. The technicians in his studio in Austria fed those high-resolution stills into customized Realtime 3D software, then married them with data gleaned from Google Earth and other geographic sources. The goal was to make a virtual-reality re-creation of a moment on Sunday, April 14, 1935, when the Dust Bowl was just about at its worst. "Darkest dark I ever experienced," wrote one observer caught in the Black Sunday storm.

Then that single moment gets drawn out. Gerrard's ever-circling camera records the storm's presence hour after hour, day after day, month after month, season after season for an entire year. The light on the landscape changes as it should -- the animation is programmed to re-create the light in Texas at the very moment Washingtonians are viewing the piece, down to the position of the Texan stars at night -- but the one thing that never changes is that looming storm. Gerrard's catalogue explains that it was caused by the devastation of the land by mechanized, oil-powered agriculture. The artist describes that stripping of an entire landscape's soil as an "ecocide," and says the Texas plains have yet to recover from it.

Another of Gerrard's silent animations, called "Grow Finish Unit," plays on an LCD screen in a kind of foyer leading to his projection. This time, instead of focusing on the horizon, the camera's pointed inward, circling an automated hog-fattening facility the artist came upon near the setting for his storm. There are plenty of tokens of beauty in the scene: Gerrard's high-res, high-tech, real-time realism gives us the setting sun glinting across the buildings' silvery walls, as well as the long, twilit shadows they cast across a nearby pond. (It's worth visiting this show in early morning or at end of day, when the Texas light, an hour behind Washington's, is at its most attractive.) But that beauty dissipates as soon as you learn that this romantic pond is in fact an industrial lagoon that stores waste from 10,000 pigs, crowded a thousand at a time into each of the 10 barns in view.

Gerrard's final animation is called "Sentry." It's also shown in that foyer, on a bigger plasma screen. This time we see a brand-new, gleaming-red oil pump -- branded "Sentry" -- bobbing up and down as the camera circles it ad infinitum through the changing light of a full year. (As in all of Gerrard's pieces, that camera is a virtual one, created by software that can move it anywhere the artist wants, at any speed, while "recording" his virtual world through any lens from wide-angle to telephoto.)

The bobbing in this final view onto the Texas plains represents "the defining action of our social realities -- of our oil age," according to Gerrard. Oil, source of so much of our energy, our transportation, our plastics and our fertilizer, is what keeps American life powered up, fed and moving forward -- possibly toward environmental and even social collapse.

And yet it all looks so good, so appealing in Gerrard's art. Though the realism in his pieces is tremendously effective, he always makes it just artificial enough to keep us noticing his wondrous tech: His pump moves just a hint too cleanly to be real; the camera that circles his barns moves more smoothly than any dolly could; his dust storm roils just a bit too politely. Those clues leave us more caught up with this art's realism than with the reality it shows. That is, we're almost more aware of the fabulous technology used in the art than we are of the troubling technology in its subject matter.

While Gerrard's "Grow Finish Unit" does give us the creeps and his pump may get us thinking, the tech in his art goes down easy. It's almost as though that art shows us the endpoint in a perfectly technologized world: A dust storm is silent and does no visible harm; we can't hear or smell the pigs being fattened for our chops; an oil pump is Christmas-present pretty. There's a kind of inhumanity to Gerrard's sleek animations, but somehow we don't object.

Gerrard has pointed out the eerie absence of humans in his landscapes -- that the effects of our actions are on view, but not us. But maybe we are. The absence in these landscapes matches an absence that is there in every realistic image ever made: It's the absence of the observer, the artist, the photographer -- the person looking at the scene shown in the picture, and the one person who could never appear in it. Gerrard's art turns us into that absent onlooker. Our eyes circle the horizon without flinching or stopping at his storm; we hover disembodied as we take in that pump, 24/7. Thanks to Gerrard's art, we have at last become machines, looking at the nature we have left behind.

With luck, we may not like what we've become.

Directions: John Gerrard

is at the Hirshhorn Museum through May 31. Call 202-633-1000 or visit http://www.hirshhorn.si.edu.

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