On cold July nights, Adelaide crowds flock to an extraordinary festival of light and sound.
The main attraction of the Illuminate Festival is Wisdom of AI Light, an immersive digital performance where the audience experiences art combined with science at breakneck speed. Dubbed the “digital renaissance,” it’s much more than that.
A large pop-up space hosts creators from Istanbul-based Ouchhh Studio, which is pushing the boundaries of what machines can do.
Spurred on by Alan Turing’s Computing Machinery and Intelligence (1950), a variety of digital artists have explored how machines are replacing the artist in thinking, creating art and music.
Ouchhh Studio takes the digital art revolution to a whole new level. Art history is a dataset from which its scientists, animators, and designers use artificial intelligence to create algorithms that create stunning visual effects that dance across the walls and floor of the space.
Every now and then Leonardo da Vinci’s enigmatic Mona Lisa (1503) or his Vitruvian Man (1490) appear together with fragments of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling (1508-12) or Pieta (1498-99), only to dissolve into particles.
In the second part of the performance, the creators turn to the writings of Galileo, Einstein and other physicists. Snippets of their texts and scientific symbols dance across the walls and floor only to dissolve into computer language or abstract designs.
Ouchhh Studios’ partnership with scientists from CERN and NASA is groundbreaking: their multi-sensory performance is a visual feast.
Read more: Friday Essay: Rise of the Artistic Machines
Painting trees with light
At the botanical gardens, Montreal-based Moment Factory presents another evening spectacle, Light Cycles. The Moment Factory laboratory is the forest. Trees, plants and buildings become her canvas.
A curated path through the gardens takes viewers on a journey where light, music and video interact. The everyday world slips away and nature comes alive.
At one point, you move through a maze of intersecting laser lights. At another, lights dance up and down huge trees, accompanied by pounding music that mimics the imaginative tree monsters from children’s stories.
Next, a choreography of lights dances across a lake and performs moves that rival contemporary dance. The conclusion is the changing parade of lights at the palm house.
This deeply performative, immersive and experiential walk through light and sound is absolutely breathtaking.
Illuminate Adelaide also illuminates buildings across the city after dark. The facade of the Art Gallery of South Australia houses Vincent Namatjira’s Going Out Bush.
The gallery’s classic columns become gum trees in the Hermannsburg style of watercolor painting made famous by Albert Namatjira, as Vincent weaves through and out of the country in his great-grandfather’s signature green truck.
On the one hand, the imagery is joking and folksy. On a deeper level, it rewrites colonial history. The scene is set in Indulkana, the artist’s homeland in the APY (Aṉangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara) countries, where the local soccer team plays and the camp dog roams.
Colonial power, symbolized by images of Captain Cook and the Queen, becomes First Nations power. Captain Cook and the Queen’s heads are replaced by Vincent Namatjira’s: a night’s dream or more?
Read more: Terra nullius interruptus: Captain James Cook and the absent presence in First Nations art
Studies in Melancholy
Within the walls of the Art Gallery of South Australia, Robert Wilson: Moving Portraits is on display. While not part of Illuminate Adelaide, its focus is also on light, sound and movement.
Wilson’s fascination is stillness – and movement in stillness. His 23 video portraits bear the teasing title “moving portraits”.
Wilson is a major figure in the contemporary art world, best known for his collaboration with Philip Glass on Einstein on the Beach (1975) and most recently for his radical reinterpretation of Handel’s Messiah (2020). In his highly innovative work in the performing and visual arts, the reducing forms of space and time are always at play.
Some of Wilson’s subjects for his highly staged, theatrical pieces in his Moving Portraits are actors because they are trained to hold a pose. The resulting scenes are often steeped in art history, film or literature, as in Lady Gaga: Mademoiselle Caroline Riviere (2013).
Inspired by the famous 1806 portrait of Jean Auguste-Dominique Ingres, this video portrait reproduces his costume and pose perfectly, but for Wilson it is a study in melancholy. The teenage Caroline Riviere died a year after Ingres’ portrait commission.
When filmed, Lady Gaga held the pose for seven hours. The video portrait, which loops endlessly for several minutes, is intensely still and subdued. A tear runs down Lady Gaga’s face. A snow goose occasionally flies overhead to allude to the brevity and beauty of life.
Each Wilson video portrait is paired with objects from the gallery’s collection, this one being a Roman balsarium (c. AD 50-200), a delicate glass tear catcher measuring just 13cm tall.
Wilson sees his portraits as a psychological window for the viewer, the balsarium completing the effect in an eerie way.
Space is compressed in another intense portrait of Chinese expatriate writer and Nobel laureate in literature Gao Xingjian, Writer (2005). The portrait focuses on his cropped face. Every face line and skin pore are visible.
With the eyes closed, apart from the slight flickering of the eyelids, the face becomes a record of struggle and success. French text by Jean Paul Sartre, slowly sliding across his face, which reads in English: “Solitude is a necessary condition for freedom”.
The video portraits extend to animals, with Wilson being particularly fascinated by the connection between humans and animals. These include the mesmerizing Ivory, Black Panther (2006), which Wilson and his technicians filmed for 23 minutes in a domestic setting, with the panther’s eyes fixed on these intruders.
The connection between humans and this potentially dangerous animal is palpable: the silence is both annoying and its draw.
Other moving portraits include a softer, more vulnerable Brad Pitt, Actor (2004) standing in the rain in boxers and socks, holding a water gun, a nod to Alfred Hitchcock.
Wilson works collaboratively. It starts with his motif and extends to his creative team, which spends another two weeks editing and sound mixing after the theatrically staged shooting. Each portrait comes with an accompanying soundtrack.
Watching the Wilson video portraits, time slows down; The slight movement in the images, like Winona Ryder’s feather on her hat swaying in her mesmerizing Winona Ryder Actress (2004), requires careful viewing. Viewers in the exhibition space are subtly introduced to Wilson’s mantra of “moving in stillness” in this deeply emotional series that is poetry in motion.
A truly exquisite exhibition.
Illuminate Adelaide can be seen in multiple locations through July 31st. Robert Wilson: Moving Portraits is on view at the Art Gallery of South Australia until October 3rd.